On ‘Local Self-Government and Civic Self-Organization’

On ‘Local Self-Government and Civic Self-Organization’

Head of the section ‘Local Self-Government and Civic Self-Organization’ under the topic ‘Public Administration, Local Self-Government and the NGO Sector’, Irina V. Mersiyanova, Candidate of Sociological Sciences, Director of the Centre for Studies of Civil Society and the Nonprofit Sector, Head of Laboratory for Interdisciplinary Studies in Non-commercial Sector. Professional interests: sociology of organizations, civil self-administration and self-organization, civil society, non-commercial organizations, state policy and the civil society and NGOs, and applied aspects of sociological science.

- Irina, can you please tell us about the evolution of this particular topic?

- The topic ‘Self-organization of citizens, civil society and the third sector’ had been evolving as a separate section for a long time. Back in 2007, the then First Vice Rector Lev I. Jakobson inspired us to create the section ‘Self-administration and Development of Civil Society’ and his initiative was further supported by the Programme Committee. Although the title of this section has changed a few times, it nevertheless remains focused on the initial topic, with consideration given to those transformations that our research object has seen over the years, thus generating new practices in civil society. At present, Lev I. Jakobson, as the long-time Academic Supervisor of the Centre and HSE University Vice President, pays close attention to the development of broader issues affecting civil society, e.g., applying interdisciplinary approaches in response to transformations and processes in public life and the social demand to properly comprehend them.

In 2019, our section was merged with another section covering issues of public administration and this combined section became known as ‘Public Administration, Local Self-Government and the NGO Sector’. It is a new section; however, we strongly believe that both topical fields will benefit from the integration. Issues concerning the development of civil society naturally fit in with the broader context of various interactions with authorities. At the same time, awareness of the impossibility of positive and holistic changes in economic and social development, without the inclusion of civil society in these processes, must be enhanced at all levels within public institutions. I think that this convergence of topics can help us to keep raising the bar for our section.

- What perspectives and possible transformations can you identify for both the entire field and separate thematic fields within it?

- The possible transformation of this field is also subject to the changes experienced by the research object itself. These changes influence both the institutions of civil society and how it is perceived. We have yet to evaluate how the third sector will be affected by the current pandemic and digital transformation. The situation in this sector is changing rapidly and it is a task for us as researchers to not only track such changes, but also, and this is equally important, to make our research findings accessible for professionals working in civil society organizations. By doing so, our topical field aims to return data and knowledge to civil society that we gain from it during our research. I think that our field, as it evolves, will steer towards forecasts in terms of expected transformations of civil society, along with its institutions and practices.

- Irina, have you hosted outstanding speakers as part of your section? What are the most memorable moments from their talks?

- For many years, our Centre has not only conducted research, but has also fostered and provided full support to the interdisciplinary community of researchers of civil society, who are few in number, but they represent various disciplines: sociology, economics, history, law, political science, etc. Our research object - civil society, along with its institutes and practices, features distinct regional characteristics. Our section at the April Conference is always a meeting and beneficial exchange of ideas between scholars and professionals from the civil society, leaders and activists of non-commercial organizations, from many regions of Russia. My birthday is April 9 so my birthday very often falls on the days of the April Conference. Therefore, for us, the April Conference is also a celebration from which, as a famous song puts it, ‘there is no escaping’. It’s a good reason to meet with our friends and colleagues.

Over the years, when our section has been a part of the April Conference, it has acquired core speakers, whose reports invariably attract an audience from a wide array of specialists. It is safe to say that presentations made by these academics have become a hallmark of our section.

Our section usually hosts reputable foreign academics as honorary guests and speakers. One of the most outstanding speakers, who have delivered an honorary report as part of our section, was Prof. Lester Milton Salamon, our long-time partner and colleague from Johns Hopkins University (USA). Prof. Salamon has inspired and supervised a unique in its scope project for the comparative analysis of the non-commercial sector, whereby the structures, size and economic contribution of the non-commercial sector were studied in 45 countries (including Russia) for over 20 years. Prof. Salamon is a brilliant and articulate speaker, who is capable of pinpointing contradictions or irregularities in seemingly routine processes. The third sector, which fills a place between the public authorities and business, is a complex combination of organizations and practices. Its evaluation criteria are diverse and the notion itself is the least conceptualized in comparison with the two sectors specified above. Prof. Salamon made the reconceptualization of the third sector a focal point of his report and offered a broader interpretation for it, i.e., the sector’s composition should also include individual initiatives, social business projects and other types of civil self-organization, in addition to officially registered NGOs. In order to improve the comparability of this phenomenon across various national contexts, Prof. Salamon has argued that the third sector should be considered through the prism of common parameters, typical of third-sector institutions and practices that are found in different countries.

- Are there similar speakers among the Russian participants in the section?

- Our best speakers are constant participants in our section. Among them is Marina A. Shabanova, Doctor of Sociological Sciences, who was the first academic in this country to research the issue of separate waste collection as a practice for sustainable consumption. Today, the promising prospects for responsible (ethical) consumption are confirmed by surveys with the heads of NGOs. The problem of citizen involvement in recycling practices is also being considered at the state level. With respect to this phenomenon, Marina Shabanova was able to identify and evaluate the potential of the emerging and still not fully shaped practices of civil society here in Russia. Marina’s presentations and papers are an example of scientific rigour and in-depth analysis.

The research work conducted by Doctor of Sociological Sciences Larisa Nikovskaya and Doctor of Sociological Sciences Vladimir Yakimets, who are engaged in the development of innovative tools for measuring the quality of intersectoral social partnerships and dialogue between authorities and society, always sparks audience interest thanks to their original formulation of the research problem, as well as the richness of their empirical materials and conclusions.

Furthermore, it is worth mentioning our regular speaker, Doctor of Sociological Sciences from Novosibirsk Irina Skalaban, who carries out detailed analysis of the involvement of citizens in local communities, as well as the socio-political and ethno-social conflicts arising thereof at that level and the options for dealing with them. In addition to pressing issues and heightened interest in ‘grassroots’ activism, the presentations made by Irina Skalaban always spark vivid discussions owing to the social temperament and emotional charge of this speaker’s manner.

- The section is obviously well represented by Russian and international scholars. Is there anything particularly special about its audience?  

- As I have already mentioned, the key feature of our audience is that they are very diverse in all senses of the word. The professional community, which is being established by our section, includes not only scholars, but also professionals from civil society, who are interested in in-depth analysis of its special characteristics and trends. On the other hand, scholars who make up the cohort of our speakers and participants represent a wide array of academic disciplines and, correspondingly, the analyzed aspects and dimensions of civil society. The fact that civil initiatives are launched by local communities contributes to the diversity of the regional representation of participants in our section. Moreover, we certainly expect to witness this again at this year’s April Conference.