Running a Comparative Empirical Programme in Social Research

Christian Fröhlich is Assistant Professor at the School of Sociology and has been at HSE since 2014. He also supervises an English-taught Master’s Programme ‘Comparative Social Research’ and told The HSE Look about its design, partnerships and lessons learned from running the programme

What is the most distinct feature of your Master Programme ‘Comparative Social Research’?

We are a relatively small graduate programme with a focus on academic research, and there are at least three features which set it apart. The first one concerns the content of the programme; it is focused on comparative social research. The programme is closely related with the Department of Sociology, but it is interdisciplinary in social sciences. Most of our students come from sociology, but some also from political science, history, etc.  The courses always provide a comparative perspective as well as the relevant methodology, and this should be a part of the students’ master theses as well, because comparison allows us to approach a cohesive understanding of social reality today.

The second feature which makes us unique is a very strong drive for internationalisation of the education for our students. We have a unique relationship with the Laboratory for Comparative Social Research (LCSR), they have the world-wide renown researchers in the lab, such as Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel,and access to the World Value Survey. Eduard Ponarin and Anna Almakaeva from LCSR teach courses at the programme, and we invite laboratory’s guest researchers to give lectures to students and supervise their research projects as well. We are inviting lecturers from outside Russia on our own as well, such as Monika Wohlrab-Sahr (Professor of Cultural Sociology at the University of Leipzig), Alejandro Moreno (Professor of Political Science at Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México), and Tim Reeskeens(Assistant Professor in sociology at Tilburg University).

Thirdly, our programme places a heavy emphasis on practical research; we dedicate a whole semester to an academic internship, either at a Russian institution or abroad. All the courses are taught during the first year, leaving the second one for practical research during the internship, research seminar and the writing of the master thesis per se. At least a third of our students spend their internship abroad, gathering data and doing research for their master thesis.  

What are the research topics the students work on?

Every work is an empirical study, either quantitative or qualitative. For quantitative research the students often analyze pre-existing data sets, testing different hypotheses. For example, one work examined the students of St. Petersburg campus and how they perceive each other and which clusters they identify in terms of perceived ethnicity. It was a very interesting study in terms of de(markation) and boundary-making between students of different ethnicities. First, it showed us that ethnicity is still very important even for young people in terms of how they categorize the world; second, it was interesting to see what clusters emerge through people’s imaginations and ideas about other ethnicities.

For qualitative research we teach the students how best to use interviews and ethnographic methods. An example of this type of work we had recently is Deconstruction of Normality among Gay Men in Santiago de Chile; it revealed how heterosexual normality is reproduced in the city’s gay community.

Are there any specific internship opportunities for the students? Do they carry out research mostly in Russia or abroad?

This very much depends on the individual initiative of each student: some of them have very specific ideas about what they want, but most students are not so active. It is very individual; we sit down with students and discuss her or his research ideas and topics, so as to find a proper place to go to.  Typically, several students go to HSE research units for internship, and LCSR is also one of the options. Others go to external organisations and abroad, for example, to Free University of Berlin, University of Tilburg and King’s College.

Students look for funding through different sources: Erasmus Plus scholarships, commission at the Faculty level, scholarships from organisations abroad which support student and research mobility, and the programme provides recommendations and helps to look for specific local opportunities through the academic connections of our faculty members. In the end, it is all very handcrafted and takes a lot of time, but it pays off: students come back after having conducted unique research projects.

How many international students do you have at the programme?

We are a very young programme, it is only our third year, and we have several international students, but not as much as we would like to.  During the admissions period we review all the portfolios of international students and arrange Skype interviews with the short-listed candidates. In terms of quality we are quite comparable with programmes everywhere in Western universities; but the need to move to Russia for two years plays against us.

In order to make the programme more globally attractive, we are launching a double degree with Free University of Berlin (FUB) in 2018. Hopefully, a chance to get two degrees will increase the appeal of the programme for the best international students. Both the HSE and FUB are interested in the double degree programme, and we believe that it will be a success. The existing partnerships with universities also help to promote the programme: for example, we have an informal exchange for lecturers and internship opportunities for students with University of Tilburg (the Netherlands).

What advice could you give to those who want to supervise an English-taught programme?

One of the biggest challenges for all programmes is resources; but while it is difficult to accomplish some things as one programme, cooperation may offer solutions. For example, every programme wants to introduce some unique courses as electives, but it is challenging to offer a wide variety and at the same time to meet the minimum requirement for the number of students. Discussing options for joint courses with other programmes at HSE is a working solution in such cases. As a result, we try to get another programme on board with including the course into the elective part of the curriculum before opening something new.

Again, exploring cooperation opportunities is the key, so do not hesitate to contact both Russian and international colleagues at HSE if you need more lecturers for your English courses. Either they will be interested and available themselves, or they could recommend potential guest researchers from universities abroad. 

Read more in The HSE Look issue for February 2017