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Interview with Daniel Alexandrov about his journey to Holland

Daniel Alexandrov, Deputy Director of HSE at St. Petersburg and Professor of the Department of Sociology, tells about his trip to the Netherlands, the purpose of which was to establish partnership between HSE and 2 Dutch universities.

- What was the purpose of your journey to Holland?

My colleagues and I have recently spent a week in the universities of Groningen and Amsterdam (Netherlands) to establish long-term contacts between them and the Higher School of Economics. We already have an established relationship with the University of Groningen that was established about two years ago when Valeria Ivanyushina and I went there for a consultation on our project. This university is one of the major international centers that focus on statistical analysis of social networks. They actively use and develop methodology of network analysis, and we have been working with them on our own data. For example, last year we had a course of lectures by Christian Steglich and Marijtje van Duijn in St.Petersburg, this time we visited them in the Netherlands. During this journey we faced new challenges: we agreed to organize student exchanges and joint graduate program.

- As far as I know, the idea of cooperation between HSE and the University of Groningen has been discussed before. What was new in negotiations?

Our idea is to establish cooperation between the leading laboratories of HSE and the University of Groningen. There is also a major project of cooperation between our universities which was originally initiated by the Dutch side. Delegation from Groningen headed by the dean Sibrand Poppema came to the negotiations in Moscow last autumn. I invited some professors of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences to St. Petersburg. During this visit they met Ronald Inglehart and Eduard Ponarin, professors at St. Petersburg HSE. The idea of student exchanges and joint Ph.D. programs were specifically discussed. Colleagues from Groningen interested in this for two reasons.

On the one hand, they see a lot in common in our research projects. They work on research projects on modeling micro level relations, for example, they analyze how the interests of the students are related to their ethnicity and social class. We study very similar things, although at different levels, they have gone far ahead.

On the other hand, at HSE-St. Petersburg there are several notable courses that are not taught in Groningen. For example, at the Laboratory of Comparative Social Research (LCSR) there are English courses of macrosociology and evolution of human societies taught by Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel. This is certainly attractive to the Dutch post-graduate students: we have courses that they cannot attend in Dutch, because in those universities everything is focused on microsociological level, but at the same time they have courses on the techniques of studying social networks that our students need. That is why we plan to organize student exchange programs.

Moreover, the Dutch colleagues believe that their students can participate in our projects that I presented to them during my public lecture at the University of Groningen. The Dutch researchers appreciated the quality of our data and our practice to work on the projects in large teams where students and experienced researchers cooperate. We are going to start with a small number of students to see how many Ph.D. students who study sociology and psychology from the Netherlands are ready to participate in this program. In Groningen a large flow of students is engaged in social psychology, studies of values, and cross-cultural research. It will be useful for students to cooperate with any of the Laboratories at HSE - St. Petersburg.

- This will be a double-degree program? 

My colleagues and I are not set to create a double degree program with rigid standards. The number of people willing to endure the double burden is not really big. We believe that we can solve this problem in an easier way; the possibility of joint post-graduate projects was discussed. It may look as following: young scholars, who are beginning their studies in Russia, enter the master program in Groningen and keep working on their topic in Russia. Some time this student spends with us, some time he or she spends in Holland. It is assumed, that student will collect his or her data here, in Russia. Then they went to Groningen to discuss, process, plan dissertation. Eventually students write their theses in English and defend them in Groningen. Simultaneously they tune their project for Russian regulations. It is important that the Russian scientific director has to be a member of the dissertation committee in Groningen, and it can be done only if she or he is an associate member of the faculty of sociology.

- When do you plan to launch this program?

Our colleagues from Groningen are ready to start choosing candidates from our side in the nearest future. Of course, there are restrictions on the subject: the topic in supposed to be about social networks or microinteraction modelling, but it is a fairly wide range of topics. Also, candidates for participation in project of this kind must be very qualified sociologists prepared for theoretical and statistical work. 

- What about the University of Amsterdam?

I had scheduled two meetings there. The first one with Jan Rath, the head of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. The second one with Sjoerd Karsten, a famous researcher of educational segregation in schools. The last one, unfortunately, did not happen. Jan Rath is the author of many works on ethnic business and the editor of many books. His recently published a book titled «Selling Ethnic Neighborhoods. The Rise of Neighborhoods as Places of Leisure and Consumption». With partners from all over the world (from Australia to Shanghai), he created an international research network on urban, ethnic and cultural diversity which is called "Metropolis". We are already involved in their network of distribution and obtain the information about conferences, seminars, new publications which appear on this topic.

This meeting was especially important because we are studying migration in St. Petersburg and our study is being developed in multiple dimensions and directions. Now we have a large, long-term project where professors and students work together, that will be associated, on the one hand, with economic sociology and management, and on the other hand, with studies of migration and ethnic communities. We are planning to involve students from the Department of Oriental Studies into this project too. Professor Rath who is among the world's top experts in this field promised to come to St. Petersburg this fall to consult us.

- The Department of Oriental Studies?

Yes, it will be a new department in St. Petersburg which we plan to organize together with Rath.

- You mentioned that the report you’ve made in Holland. What was it about?

It referred to the subject of our Laboratory, "School Segregation in Social Networks in the Class and Formation of Anti-school Culture." The lecture was perceived very positively. It was nice to see that our studies are approved; they are perceived as important, contemporary, and serious. For example, the colleagues from the Institute of Education (University of Groningen) where they study efficiency of education and the process of inequality formation in schools, have listened to me with great interest and are ready to cooperate. As I said, they are far ahead of us: they have an incomparably large amount of data on the Dutch schools which can actually help to develop practical measures. I hope they will come and deliver some lectures in Moscow too; it would help us to move forward in the study of the effectiveness of educational institutions. It was also very important that we met Siegwart Lindenberg, the author of " Norm-Following Behavior and Its Sensitivity to Cues: The Workings of Graduated Intensity Effects”.

- So, the negotiations were the main purpose of your visit?

Not really. Valeria Ivanyushina, Vera Titkova and Kirill Maslinsky went with me to Groningen to attend courses on network analysis. So, I went for a week to meet colleagues: deans, vice deans of international relations, professors, and to make a scientific report about our work. A large part of our team was studying.

Groningen is a wonderful small university town; there are a lot of young people there. During the week there I’ve got a sense that I had lived there all my life. By the end of the journey during my everyday walks to department of sociology and back, I was greeted by many professors and colleagues right on the street, I had a feeling that I know everyone.

- Thank you for the interview!

by Ekaterina Kuldina