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Laboratory of Sociology in Education and Science: our expedition 2019.

Laboratory of Sociology in Education and Science has just held its 10th student expedition. Student expeditions are a kind of tradition for the laboratory. It started in 2006 from our trip to Sosnovo (Leningrad oblast). Back then this was a unique experience for HSE. Right now it is quite standard and is probably the most popular form of scientific work in different campuses and at different faculties. Our university is part of the “Re-discover Russia” program, which sponsors such expeditions to different regions of Russia on a competitive basis. This year the Foundation for Educational Innovation supported 68 applications.

Laboratory of Sociology in Education and Science expedition 2019: preparation and the main ideas

Our sociological summer was a bit different this year: we have reached a whole other level of productivity. First of all, the region for our expedition (Kaluga oblast) was not a random choice. Together with the project “Teacher for Russia”, our laboratory has been conducting a study of schools throughout the Kaluga Region for two years, during which 27,000 adolescents were surveyed. The data collected was carefully processed. We analyzed key factors that may be associated with favorable school climate and also measured the level of school differentiation (between and within educational institutions). In order to find an explanation to the statistical results obtained and, most importantly, to enrich them with an empirical context, we went to Kaluga oblast to conduct interviews. This trip gave us an opportunity to meet the schools that were included in our database, as well as talk to the teenagers who study there as well as their parents.

Secondly, the trip this year was preceded by some serious preparation. On our seminars while still in Saint Petersburg the students covered a lot of theoretical works dedicated to bullying, school segregation and to studying online activities of adolescents, including social networks and online games. With the help of this knowledge, students created interview guidelines. They also analyzed the indicators of socioeconomic development of the region (see the photo attached) and placed them on a map.

Moreover, they have thoroughly analyzed 
possible routes between towns and villages of Kaluga oblast. We have chosen Dzerzhinsky district as the most interesting and accessible in terms of transportation. Our team of sociologists stayed near the district center, the town of Kondrovo, in the small village of Gorki, where students and a team of researchers from our laboratory stayed in charming little houses. This year it wasn’t just the junior students who took part in the expedition- we also had senior students and even graduates joining us, which resulted in mutually beneficial and fruitful cooperation.

Field life

We started every morning with a nice nutritious breakfast. After having their oats with condensed milk, students divided into pairs (new day, new pair: that was the main rule), and received tasks for the upcoming day. Every day there were two people in charge of cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner for the whole group. These lucky ones had both to manage to find and interview their respondents, as well as feed all their hungry colleagues. Luckily enough, each pair succeeded and managed to find ways of cooking something nice for their colleagues.

After breakfast everyone headed to the field, taking a bus, a train or going by car, to meet the informants and discuss the topics of interest. The search for locals willing to talk to the young scientists continued after lunch. Every evening right after dinner we all gathered together at a big table and talked about important findings, put pieces of information together, filled in the city map, planned our work for the next day. After these talks everyone worked on their diaries to make sure nothing is left out from the interviews collected on that day.

Students and researchers from Sociology of Education and Science Laboratory spent 14 days at the expedition, including the days of arrival and departure. During these two weeks the team of sociologists managed to visit 16 localities and 22 schools, conducted more than 200 interviews with adolescents, their parents, school workers and locals.

Data collection

All the localities and schools that were relevant for this study can be divided into two groups. First of all, we have selected localities with significant interschool or intraschool segregation and other indicators. These towns and villages were carefully studied. At first, students mapped the area, talked to the local residents to get acquainted with the situation, problems, spatial organization of the settlement. Then they talked to students from schools that are situated on the territory of the locality they were studying, as well as their parents. 
In the meantime, senior colleagues conducted interviews with directors, head teachers and class teachers.

The second group of cases included schools that have the same socioeconomic status of parents, but differ when it comes to school climate indicators such as bullying (situations of harassment, one-sided displays of aggression). We organised short one-day visits to these schools, trying to find out why everything is so different at these schools.

The interview guideline that was corrected after the first field visits included three main topics: bullying, school differentiation and adolescents in social networks and online games. The first part of the trip was dedicated to collecting interviews, searching for information about relevant schools and localities. Towards the end of the expedition students divided into three groups and proceeded to data analysis under the careful supervision of their senior colleagues from the Laboratory. We can already make several important conclusions based on preliminary analysis of data collected during the expedition.

Findings

Interschool segregation is quite rare, since in a small village there is usually only one school, and the closest alternative is at a sufficiently remote distance. This distance is too far for a child to walk, public transport is unstable and not every family has an opportunity to drive their children their either. In this case parents do not really have much choice and children from families with different income and level of education end up studying together. This leads to segregation within the school, leading to objective or subjective differences between classes in one year, visible to both students and teachers.

These differences can manifest themselves in academic performance, number of students from neighbouring villages and orphanage houses, the ability of families to afford trendy clothes and the newest smartphones. 
However, there are more complex reasons for intraschool differentiation. A good example is cadet classes. Cadets have a special status compared to a normal class: they wear ‘expensive’ uniform, they have to meet the requirements regarding discipline and academic performance to preserve their ‘title’. But most importantly, opening cadet classes creates a core of active parents who are interested in their kids’ school life and are actively participating in organizing various trips and events.

The second part of our findings is connected to school climate and bullying. First of all, it is important to understand that a lot of teachers are aware of many situations involving displays of aggression at school and are willing to undertake measures to improve the situation. For example, some of them have even discusses hiring a school psychologist. Unfortunately, small schools cannot really afford a specialist of that kind. Both administration and teachers are trying to manage themselves, discussing the school climate indicators based on reports provided by the Sociology of Education and Science Laboratory, and are trying to get the parents actively involved in the process. Interestingly, we found two opposite strategies in cooperation of teachers and pupils in cases of violations of school discipline. Some teachers prefer to have a one-on-one meeting with students; others choose to tell students off openly in front of the whole class, or, in some cases, the whole school. The question is, which measures actually help to eliminate the issues, and which provoke new violations?

Bullying situations were discussed in interviews as well. It was detected that aggressors, observers and victims have different narratives regarding cases of aggression and bullying, but can clearly tell when the joke stops being funny and becomes offensive. Both aggressors and victims name different reasons for crossing that line. How they dish out blame also differs in each case of bullying. We noticed that informants who speak about social aggression are a lot more willing to describe incidents that took place sometime in the past rather than recent ones. Therefore, we considered improving our survey instrument by adding retrospective questions also.

The involvement of adolescents in social networks and online games is quite a fresh topic, so our findings in regards to it are mostly factological. VKontakte and Instagram have proved themselves to be very popular in small localities, whereas Twitter and telegram are barely used. Normally Facebook is only needed to get an online game account. Almost every class has their own chat in VKontakte. Sometimes there are two parallel ‘conversations’. One of them includes the class teacher, and is used for discussing homework and other school-related issues. The second one only includes pupils and can sometimes be used as platforms for cyberbullying where 
teenagers insult or systematically harass someone, send unpleasant photos or “memes”.

Both parents and teachers try to control what teenagers do online. Parents can try and make their children show their private messages, whereas teachers have to be more creative. Some of them create fake profiles and request access to communities and chats to find out the information that is normally hidden from teachers. Adolescents use fake profiles to protect themselves as well, For example, a fake profile can be used to hide unusual music tastes from peers or parents.

There were some gender differences found in online gaming practices. Boys play both inside their school company and with strangers (online). Sometimes playing together results into friendship outside of games, which is not a popular practice amongst girls. Girls told us that they often use the type of games called ´time killers´ on their mobile phones, whereas boys prefer computer games such as Counter Strike. We also met some cybersports fans in small towns and villages. They follow online broadcasts of tournaments and arrange small competitions. Some of them even dream of a career as a cyber sportsman, but emphasize that this dream is almost unattainable.

Judging by the first findings and the amount of material that was collected during the expedition, this summer was very productive for researchers. It also turned out to be a very successful experience for the students who took part in the trip. Expedition combines studies and research, teaches how to apply theory to empirical material, and gives an opportunity to feel what ‘real sociology´ is. Our team of researchers and students brought a lot of research materials, new experiences and impressions back from Kaluga oblast. We are very thankful to the HSE for the granted opportunity, and cannot wait for the next field season.

You can read our students’ impressions from the expedition here:

https://slon.hse.ru/news/221909762.html