Surviving the 3rd Year of the PhD: Or, How to Become a ‘Structure of Feeling’ Part 1

After two months of the coronavirus lockdown, Britain is slowly coming back to ‘normal’ life. In Manchester, cafés and non-essential shops reopen their doors to customers. People go out and gather together though social distancing, taking sanitary measures, and wearing facemasks. Meanwhile, I submitted my documents for the annual review 2020. It is time to look back over the 3rd year of my PhD at the University of Manchester, full of intellectual insights but also of diverse feelings and experiences against the background of big events, which will go into history.

Autumn Semester: Eat, Pray, Love Write, Teach, Strike

The autumn semester started well and did not show any sign of trouble.

On the 1st of September 2019, I was ready to begin writing the first, actually the final, empirical chapter of my thesis. I know it might sound strange but my supervisory team advised me to begin with that final chapter 7 looking at different forms of everyday struggle of workers and subordinate classes in Russia. I established a writing routine and spent two months for drafting the text. I was mainly struggling with how to formulate the arguments out of ethnographic data. For me, it turned out to be easy to write but hard to put rich ethnography in one chapter still waiting for a good summary.

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Writing the first page of my thesis, September 2019 © Photo by the author

After that, I decided to follow a logical sequence in telling the story and spent the following two months for drafting the next, actually the previous, empirical chapter dedicated to everyday inequalities, which workers experienced daily in Russian industrial neighbourhoods. Chapter 6 on everyday inequalities and social imaginary was more consistent. I tried to inscribe theoretical concepts into the empirical analysis. However, building bridges between Russian data and ‘Western’ theories was not an easy task for me. Alongside this, I assisted my supervisor in her course on the everyday understanding of inequalities which broadened my knowledge in inequality studies.

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The University Place, October 2019 © Photo by the author

The final lectures of the course were planned to be on how people protest inequalities and make sense of them. Due to the UCU* eight-day strike supported by 60 Universities across the UK, those lectures were cancelled. Instead, together with the University staff and students, we were protesting against unfair pensions in academia, gender and race pay gap, short-term contracts, underpayment and workload of early career researchers and graduate teaching assistants. In parallel to the strike, I was finishing chapter 6, while some of my peers were canvassing for the Labour Party before the General Elections.

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The UCU strike at the University of Manchester, November 2019 © Photo by the author

I remember the day before the elections we were drinking in a pub with PhD students and somebody said that tomorrow we would wake up in socialism. The semester finished with the loss of Jeremy Corbin. Boris Johnson became the Prime Minister. For Britain, leaving the EU became an inevitable future. Many people in academia felt disappointed and thought that Brexit was the worst thing could happen. At that time, no one had ever heard about COVID-19.

Winter Break: Be Happy and Read Novels

Packing my suitcase with Christmas presents, I managed to squeeze a novel, which I borrowed from the university library and went to Russia. I was happy to spend a winter break in Moscow with my family, meet up with friends and colleagues, and visit a couple of art exhibitions.

During the Christmas holidays, I had more time for reading for pleasure. That’s how I turned to Border Country, the novel I brought with me in the suitcase. The novel opens with the return of Matthew Price, a university lecturer in London, to the Welsh village of Glynmawr, when his father, a signalman at the railway station, has a stroke. The book impressed me deeply by the imaginative depiction of the country, its landscapes and sceneries combining rural and industrial elements in the local infrastructure. After finishing it, I began to understand better what ‘structure of feeling’ meant.

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The book from the University of Manchester Library © Photo by the author

Amazingly, the book from the library, the third impression of the novel published in 1978, contained the signature on its title page. I am still thinking whether it could be that I was holding in my hands the copy of the book signed by its author, Raymond Williams.

In the mid of January, when I was leaving Moscow for Manchester, some people in Europe already knew about the coronavirus from the news. However, most of them neither worried about it nor took it seriously. As for me, I was in reading research literature for my next empirical chapter.

To be continued…

*UCU is an abbreviation for the University and College Union, the official trade union supporting University workers across the UK.

2nd year of the PhD: facing new challenges

Some people say that the 2nd year is the most exciting and easiest stage of the full PhD process. On the one hand, I agree with this, because at this point you know what you should do exactly and it is still far to write the whole thesis. On the other hand, each PGR student has its own path depending on her/his research project, so you never know what challenges may arise at this stage. During my 2nd year of the PhD in Sociology at the University of Manchester, I completed fieldwork, analyzed most of the empirical data, and gained teaching experience. I decided not to make these things all together and spent several months for each of these activities separately.

Teaching

In September 2018, I came back to Manchester from the 2nd field trip to Russia and as a teaching assistant joined two courses, Media, Culture & Society and Researching Culture & Society, given at the University of Manchester. Before the PhD I had already taught in Moscow Universities. However, as far as British and Russian systems of higher education differ, there was something new for me to learn. New teaching assistants have to take introductory courses explaining, for example, how to protect confidential information about students, how to solve a problem of cultural diversity in the classroom, how to assess students’ records and give feedback, etc. Only after the completion of these introductory courses you are allowed to start teaching.

IMG_2772The Whitworth Building of the University of Manchester. Photo by Alexandrina Vanke

From October to December 2018, I gave seminars (called tutorials at the University of Manchester) in four groups, in two for each of the course. There were approx. 10 students in each group. It took me two-three days of preparation, and one day of teaching. Normally teaching assistants should read the required and additional literature for tutorials (up to 10 positions for one tutorial) and facilitate a discussion in the classroom. Lecturers prepare questions for the discussion beforehand. You may be creative and add something else but a seminar has already a structure though. The things you are required to do is to help students to get answers to the questions based on the reading and support them in critical debating the issues formulated by the lecturer.

By the mid-autumn, each student had to submit a written work on one of the topics proposed by the lecturer and based on the recommended reading. For me, the assessment of students’ essays was the most time-consuming part of teaching. It was absolutely different from the assessment process I used to do in Russian Unis. At the University of Manchester, you should estimate an essay on a 100-point scale and explain in detail (i.e. to write feedback), why you gave a particular mark to a student. In addition, you should assess different elements of each essay on a 10-point scale, e.g. creativity, methodology, originality, critical reflection, arguments, etc.

IMG_2780.JPGThe campus of the University of Manchester. Photo by Alexandrina Vanke

At the time of teaching, I spent one-two days in the working week for my PhD research and sometimes weekends. In spite of new challenges, it was really great for me to change the activity: to switch from fieldwork to teaching. In addition, I got to know some new approaches from the course Media, Culture & Society, which I may use in PhD, and broadened knowledge in qualitative research methods thanks to the course Researching Culture & Society. At the beginning of December 2018, I went to Boston to present PhD research at the Annual Conference of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. After coming back to Manchester I gave the final class and in the next couple of days headed to Moscow to undertake the final phase of fieldwork.

Fieldwork

The research design of my PhD project ‘Working-class life and struggle in post-Soviet Russia’ is based on the approach of multi-sited ethnography and involved collecting ethnographic data in two localities. Fieldwork took place in two field sites and was split into three phases. By the end of the 1st year of the PhD (read more: here), I had two field trips to Yekaterinburg and Moscow and collected most of the empirical data in two industrial neighbourhoods located in these two cities. After the 2nd field trip, I formulated some new suggestions, which needed to be supported by additional empirical data.

To check the provisional arguments, I decided to undertake the 3rd phase of fieldwork in Moscow between December 2018 and January 2019. During this final field trip, I came back to the examined Moscow neighbourhood and conducted some more interviews with its residents. However, this phase aimed at researching the experiences of workers who took part in trade union activity. As far as this winter field trip coincided with long New Year celebrations in Russia, it was quite problematic to arrange meetings with potential participants. If people agreed for the interviews, our talks were long and occurred in a warm and relaxing atmosphere, sometimes over tea at the participant’s place.

Sociology PGR Colloquium

An announcement of my presentation at the colloquium. Made by Francisca Ortiz Ruiz

In February 2019, I finished collecting data and came back to Manchester being ready to move onto the next stage of data analysis. Finally, my database consisted of 53 ethnographic interviews, 155 pages of field notes, more than 550 photographs and other visual data. I was invited to present the PhD project at the PGR colloquium organized by my peers from Sociology. The process of preparation for the colloquium allowed me to build a more or less coherent visual narrative with sociological ethnography and to see that I had enough empirics for putting a puzzle together.

Data analysis

The spring semester of the 2nd year was fully dedicated to work with empirical data. First of all, interview transcripts needed anonymization and creation of an anonymization log with records about places data, which was removed or replaced by pseudonyms. I changed the names of research participants, and the names of their relatives and friends mentioned in interviews, the names of neighbourhoods, streets, and other recognizable spots, numbers of schools and house buildings, etc.

IMG_5238.JPGMy desk in the office of the Department of Sociology. Photo by Alexandrina Vanke

At the next stage, from March to July 2019, I coded all anonymized interview transcripts in NVivo 12 software. Before coding my supervisors advised me to choose three absolutely different interviews from the data set – I chose one interview from each of three fieldwork phases – and to create the initial codes, which changed slightly in the following process of coding. At the beginning, the codes looked a bit unstructured, but later I restructured them and generated child codes related to the key categories. On the one hand, the process of coding was routine and monotonous. On the other hand, coding in NVivo helped me to structure ethnographic data and create a detailed hierarchy of codes, which consists of more than 670 items now.

I generated some codes ‘bottom-up’ from empirical data and some codes ‘top-down’ by keeping in mind theory. Now it is clear that coding in NVivo was the first step toward bridging empirical data with theory, theory with empirical data in my PhD research. Emotions were also there. While rereading interviews, I was sometimes weeping, sometimes laughing. Well, the everyday life of workers in Russia is really hard, but there is also a place for humour and resilience.

IMG_5698Presenting PhD research at the BSA conference. Photo by Francisca Ortiz Ruiz

In April I presented the intermediated results of data analysis at the Annual Conference of the British Sociological Association which took place in Glasgow. May and June were fully spent on preparing a field report and other research documents for the annual review. In the field report, I tried to write a sociological ethnography – which was not easy for me – and figured out how the empirical chapters of the thesis may look like. At the end of the 2nd year of the PhD I presented the field report at the annual review. The reviewer gave me insightful feedback on empirical research and helpful advice on the theoretical framework. Inspired by the stimulating discussion at the annual review, I am looking forward to moving onto the next stage and starting writing the thesis.

Sociological Debate on Inequalities in Russia and Beyond

My review Sociological Debate on Inequalities in Russia and Beyond has been published in the Russian Sociological Review.

The review considers the 5th All-Russian Sociological Congress held at the Ural Federal University in Yekaterinburg in October, 2016. The event, entitled “Sociology and Society: Social Inequality and Social Justice,” attracted more than 1000 delegates from Russia and abroad. The Congress took place against a background of increasing social inequality in Russia, following the economic crisis of 2015. The program included 17 sessions, 37 panels, and 35 round tables which covered burning topics such as the unequal distribution of resources in Russian regions, the reduction of social welfare, the low living standards of vulnerable social groups, the growth of ethnic tension, and others. One of the plenary talks was given by the president of the International Sociological Association, Margaret Abraham, who spoke on the humanistic mission of Sociology, and called to coalesce in the struggle against social injustice in the world. The discussions at the Congress have shown that sociologists in Russia follow the global trends in examining urgent social problems, as well as in reflecting methodological issues, e.g., the application of new approaches in inequality studies. The debate on the restriction of academic freedoms in Russia at the closing plenary session made it obvious that the solution to this problem can be found in professional solidarity and is the responsibility of everyone who belongs to the sociological community.

Read more: here.

How do social factors determine which music, fashions, trends, films etc become pop culture phenomena and which don’t?

My answer to the question “How do social factors determine which music, fashions, trends, films etc become pop culture phenomena and which don’t?” on the website TheQuestion UK


According to one sociological approach, music, films, books, clothes, and other cultural goods become popular among mass audiences through the mechanism of competitive struggle between various social groups.

The social groups that are important in the fields of fashion and culture production are those that possess a large amount of capital (in terms of Pierre Bourdieu),e.g.: economic capital, cultural capital, symbolic capital, etc.

These resource groups are made up of:
a) dominating classes (the elite, bourgeoisie),
b) producers of cultural products (designers, couturiers),
c) staff of fashion-papers (editors, journalists), and
d) other collective agents who set the fashionable styles.

Thus, popular culture is the result of the interplay between many agents and conventional consumers who are mostly represented by middle-class buyers, who in turn try to perform upward social mobility with the help of improving the appearance, consuming fashionable goods, reading popular literature, watching new films, etc.

However, through the exercise of these imitative practices, conventional consumers are only engaged in symbolic mobility, while their actual social positions remain the same. This means that in societies with a well-defined class structure, dominating classes, as well as agents with specific competencies from fashion and mass media industries, set the trends that are accepted by the ordinary public.

How can I tell what social class I belong in?

My post on social class for TheQuestion UK.


The answer this question depends on several parameters. Firstly, it depends on the way you define classes or social groups. Secondly, it depends on the social structure of the society you are a part of. Thirdly, it depends on your class consciousness or your subjective class self-identification. I’ll outline four main sociological approaches to social classes here.

1) In Marxist theory, classes are understood as large groups of people differing in their positions regarding the ownership of the means of production and social division of labour. In other words, a class position is determined by the role of an individual in the public organization of labour. Marx divides the capitalist society of the 18th century into three classes:

  • Bourgeoisie, which is a dominant class owning the means of production and feeding on the exploitation of wage-workers;
  • Petite bourgeoisie, which is a class of small owners living on their personal (mostly family) labour (e.g. craftsmen, substantial peasants, etc.);
  • Workers who make up a class of employees without the means of production, who sell their labour power, producing surplus value and being exploited by bourgeoisie in the process.

In Marxism, class position forms class consciousness. But since the 18th century, the concept of class has changed significantly and new social classifications have been invented.

2) In the latter half of the 20th century, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu built on the Marxist concepts of class and capital. According to Bourdieu, social class should be understood as a collective position in the multi-dimensional space of social distinctions, which is a configuration of various volumes of capitals:

  • Economic capital (money, valuable material objects),
  • Cultural capital (level of education, specific knowledge, diplomas),
  • Social capital (connections, social networks),
  • Symbolic capital (recognition).

In Bourdieu’s approach, social classes look like clusters of points. It means that individuals with the same social characteristics and the same volumes of capitals cluster together in social space and have similar “class habituses.” “Class habitus” refers to an incorporated history and a set of social practices (manners, styles of behavior, etc.) that are determined by both the general of society and the biography of the individual.

To understand Bourdieu’s vision of classes, you can the graph from his book “Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste”:

3) British sociologist John Goldthorpe suggested yet another class model centered on employment status. He distinguishes three main classes differing by type of labour contract:

  • Employers who buy labour forces and control workers;
  • Employees who sell their labour power to employers;
  • Self-employed who are relatively independent and work for themselves (e.g., businessmen, freelancers, etc.).

With R. Erikson and L. Portocarrero, Goldthorpe has elaborated an eleven-class scheme (EGP) containing several service classes, working classes and transitory classes. (See more about EGP here). Today, the EGP class scheme is widely used by sociologists in research on social stratification, social mobility, and social inequality.

4) In recent research on social structure in British society, a group of enthusiastic sociologists under the leadership of Mike Savage constructed a new classification of classes, building on Bourdieu’s approach of capitals. On the basis of vast empirical data Savage and colleagues have defined seven classes in contemporary British society, each involving specific social traits:

  • Elite: very high economic capital (especially savings), high social capital, very high highbrow cultural capital;
  • Established middle class: high economic capital, high status of mean contacts, high highbrow and emerging cultural capital;
  • Technical middle class: high economic capital, very high mean social contacts, but relatively few contacts reported, moderate cultural capital;
  • New affluent workers: moderately good economic capital, moderately poor mean score of social contacts, though high range, moderate highbrow but good emerging cultural capital;
  • Traditional working class: moderately poor economic capital, though with reasonable house price, few social contacts, low highbrow and emerging cultural capital;
  • Emergent service workers: moderately poor economic capital, though with reasonable household income, moderate social contacts, high emerging (but low highbrow) cultural capital;
  • Precariat: poor economic capital, and the lowest scores on every other criterion.

If you would like to know which class you belong in according to the classification developed by Mike Savage and his team, just take the test “The Great British class calculator: What class are you?”

But beware! Do not forget that this test is designed for respondents from Great Britain. Other societies might have other class structures, or the social classes in those societies might involve a different set of social traits 🙂