Before coming to Virginia Tech in August 2013, I earned my bachelor’s degree in Sociology at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. I would not say that I fell in love with this discipline immediately as some of my colleagues did, but rather my interest developed gradually during my years as an undergraduate. The Higher School program helped me develop a variety of tools to apply in the field that made me feel confident as a future professional. However, my first semester at Virginia Tech prompted me to reconsider my relationship with sociology and challenged my view on my anticipated career.
I have had an opportunity this fall to communicate more closely with Virginia Tech’s Department of Sociology faculty members about their research, the paradigms within which they work, and to explore a number of additional intellectual issues. From my very first encounters with several of the program’s professors, I realized that sometimes we were not “on the same page.” My biggest concern was that the largest share of my teachers were interested in research which was, in my opinion, quite far away from solving urgent social problems. By saying “urgent social problems” I imply a range of issues involving human suffering including poverty, hunger, war and racism, among other challenges. My personal vision of sociology had always been bound closely to a (perhaps, naïve) desire to make the world better. I adopted this social justice outlook as an undergraduate, but every time I raised the question of the relevance of research to social problems in class, the answer was neither satisfying nor seemingly honest. The response I typically received was that the academic sociology enterprise was not intended to solve problems, but to increase the body of knowledge concerning society and social dynamics.
The result of this juxtaposition of my perspective and my perceptions of the faculty in my new department found me initially struggling to discern any meaningful incentives to build an academic career in this world of sociological academia, which, in my view, too often lacked a sense of reality. However, it would have been too easy just to give up without trying to discover the “essence” of this field and to ascertain whether I could locate my interests within its bounds. By chance, as part of a class assignment, I interviewed two faculty members of my choice concerning their research interests; their view on sociology as a science and what the implications of their perspectives might be for graduate students seeking to build a career in the discipline. I was very fortunate to interview Professors Nick Copeland and Paulo Polanah from the Department, who, as it turned out, hold broadly similar, but still distinct perspectives on their discipline. Their views have assisted me deeply as I have sought to locate my own interest and passion in the field.
In exploring Professor’s Copeland’s website prior to interviewing him, I discovered that his research interests lay in the sphere of “political imaginaries,” “governance,” “indigenous politics,” “Guatemala” . During my interview with him he observed that his “research is also focused on the analysis of “governments,” “violence,” “coercion,” and “gender inequality” as well as “injustice”. His academic passion for these topics is clearly reflected in the studies he has conducted in Guatemala since 2004: “My research deals with indigenous politics in Guatemala, ethnographically and historically, since the 1940s.” . When I asked Dr. Copeland about his motivation for the work he does he responded, “I am advocating for social change,” which struck me as a very personal position . His embrace of this view is clearly reflected in the research he conducts, in the classes he teaches, and in the public service he provides.
In his interview with me he mentioned specifically that the research he conducted with Mayan women “raised their profile within the non-governmental organization they were working with”. His personal and obviously emotional involvement in the inquiries he has undertaken led me to conclude that he did not see himself as an impartial academic anthropologist. Moreover, he told me that he does not believe in scientific objectivism, but rather, research as a discourse that has potential to touch people’s lives. Dr. Copeland’s answer to my question concerning “what it means to be an academic sociologist” struck me as quite close to my own perspective as a young scholar. His aims for his work extend beyond “developing the body of knowledge,” to creating discernible impacts in the societies in which he undertakes his work. Dr. Copeland’s version of scholarly activism seems to me direct and to the point. Indeed, I find it irresistibly appealing. After my conversation with him, I realized that I was not alone in my desire to have my research have an impact and not simply augment existing knowledge.
Dr. Paulo Polanah’s research interests include critiquing Western metaphysics and especially Western culture’s negative influence on other societies. As Dr. Polanah observed to me: “My work is to critique about everything…” . He argued that his analyses go far beyond any particular sphere of life and embrace a wide range of different realities in which people live – art, tourism, injustice, women’s rights etc. Therefore, his scholarship does not simply criticize the influence of the West, but is the result of an academic passion that could be described as “scientific criticism” or “critical thinking development” . Polanah questions the primacy of Western views and produces scholarship and discourse that calls for a critical examination of, and positing of alternatives to, the oppressive structures inherent in the social construction of the “modern.”
I asked Dr. Polanah about his attitude toward sociologists, who, I suggested, in my view, too often “lack a sense of reality.” Dr. Polanah’s reply to this query sounded simple, but was in fact very complex. He contended that increasing the body of knowledge may also have a dramatic impact on the world’s capacity to address its most important social problems. His attempts to provoke his audiences into reconsidering the “iron cage” of established perceptions through which they view the world are a specific version of scholarly activism. His stance does not seem to represent a direct call for action, but instead a call for an alternative to oppressive epistemologies and intellectual dogma. When scholarship employs critical thinking with the ultimate goal of improving established forms of social existence, Dr. Polanah argues it can result in new modes of social construction of meaning or as he put it, “Thought can organize reality” .
The work Professors Copeland and Polanah daily undertake is very meaningful to them because it is derived from their personal attitudes toward the issues each addresses. Both of them find themselves opposed to dictatorship, inequality, patriarchy, racism and slavery, for example. However, Dr. Polanah seeks to reveal possible alternatives to the reproduction of existing social problems that might change the world in the long run. Both of these faculty members share a belief in seeking to encourage social change. Dr.Copeland’s ideal is to influence not only the ontological views of those who read his work or experience his teaching, but to do so “effectively in real time as well” . My interview with Dr. Copeland found me adopting the view that being a scholar does not always imply working exclusively in the field of “silent” knowledge production, but instead, it may give one an opportunity to tackle certain “burning” problems with the knowledge produced from sustained inquiry. Meanwhile, speaking with Dr. Polanah debunked the myth I had embraced concerning the inapplicability of knowledge production to improving social life. One’s impact as a scholar may not occur in the short-term, but may nonetheless bring dramatic changes in the long run due to its power to prompt individuals in society to think differently. To conclude, I would like to quote Dr. Copeland who argued in defense of sociologists engaged in knowledge production that “beautiful things sometimes should be created just because they are beautiful.”  My emerging vision of sociological “beauty” is surely subtler than when I began my graduate study a few months ago, but it nonetheless remains inextricably linked with activism.
1. Assignment 3 for SOC/PAPA 5214 by Sofia Rukhin (December 6th, 2013).
2. Notes from an Interview with Dr. Nick Copeland (Department of Sociology, Virginia Tech) conducted by Sofia Rukhin on December 3rd 2013 in MCB 524.
3. Notes from an Interview with Dr. Polanah (Department of Sociology, Virginia Tech) conducted by Sofia Rukhin on December 2nd and December 4th 2013 in MCB 670.
4. Dr. Nick Copeland’s profile on the Department of Sociology’s Website
Sofia Rukhin received a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology in 2013 from the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow and is working on her Masters degree in Sociology at Virginia Tech. Her primary research interests include Political Economy, Political Sociology, Globalization, and Social Movement Theory. She is also interested in the development of U.S. – Russia relations and was selected to participate in the Stanford University – Russia Forum in 2012-2013 to work on a collaborative research project entitled, Cooperation between the US and Russian Public Welfare Agencies. Sofia and her colleagues presented their work at Stanford University in April 2013. Sofia is also interested in social policy issues and together with colleagues from the research group Professions in a Welfare State from the Higher School of Economics in Moscow she completed a research project entitled, “Professional Status of Social Work in Russia: the Cultural Resource Assessment.”