One year of Science and Technology Studies fieldwork in HSE

Ian Lowrie, visiting PhD-student from Rice University spent last academic year at HSE doing anthropology of Russian Science & Technology. Ian says: “Currently, I am entering my sixth year of study at Rice University, as a doctoral candidate in Anthropology. This past year 2014-15, however, I moved from Houston to Moscow in order to conduct fieldwork for my dissertation. The social studies faculty of the Higher School of Economics has been a crucial source of research support and my intellectual home-away-from-home while in Russia. For the summer months, they were kind enough to directly sponsor my research, which greatly facilitated my stay; in particular, I would like to thank Andrey Kozhanov for his administrative support and collegial advice about my project”.

Ian Lowrie research project has focused on elite efforts to restructure work and education in the Russian data sciences in order to build a more robust Russian information economy. By investigating the novel forms of training and research emerging at hybrid industrial-academic institutions, his work tries to provide critical and timely insight into the rapidly changing Russian information technology sector during a time of heightened geopolitical volatility. As Russia responds to its current economic crisis with radical efforts to supplement natural resource extraction with a robust information technology sector, a nuanced understanding of how work, education, and research are being restructured in the emerging data science ecosystem will be essential for regional economic and scientific policy-making.

Ian says:

“Based on my collaborative discussions with stakeholders in these developments both at the HSE and elsewhere, — Ian says, — I believe that my research will be pertinent and actionable for those involved. Further, the chance to observe this unique ecosystem as it develops promises substantial contributions to our scholarly understanding of the ongoing transformations of post-socialism and the global knowledge economy more broadly.

This summer’s research saw me continue my involvement in the intellectual life of the Moscow data science community, with trips to Yekaterinburg and Tver for some talks and supplemental interviews. Most intensively, however, I have been working with Yandex and the Higher School of Economics’ own, newly-founded, faculty of computer science. These two closely-related institutions, to my mind, stand as the best current examples of ongoing efforts to develop a Russian information economy, and to reform higher education in computer science. By speaking with senior academic and industrial researchers, as well as graduate students and early-career programmers, I’ve worked towards understanding how the post-Soviet science system is being actively reshaped to better serve the needs of a growing information technology sector.

The HSE, in particular, has been exceptionally welcoming and supportive of my research. My focus at HSE has been on the computer science faculty, with particular attention paid to people working on data science and artificial intelligence. However, I have also conducted interviews with students and faculty from affiliated departments, such as applied mathematics. All told, I have interviewed about twenty-five people at the HSE; these interviews have been essential for constructing a nuanced understanding of the backgrounds, motivations, capabilities, and goals of the academic portion of my subject population. Further, they have provided critical material for the construction of both a historical narrative about the decision-making process behind the foundation of this new faculty as well as a sophisticated institutional description of its current operation. Most anthropologically-speaking, however, they have provided a wealth of insight into the daily lives of students and academic researchers in the data scientists, painting a critical picture of their intellectual work and how it intersects with their life projects more generally.

In addition to interviews, I have been participating more broadly in the intellectual life of the department, both by observing seminars and courses as well as through more informal socialization with my interviewees. Recording the microscalar interactions between participants in these events has been crucial for my understanding of the epistemological and political dynamics of intradepartmental relations, the character of relationships between advisors and advisees, and most generally how data scientists work together to solve the problems that they have collectively set themselves.

Now, I have returned to Houston, and am beginning the work of qualitative analysis and putting together my dissertation; I will be presenting a paper on my research at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in November as part of a panel on the relationship between the anthropology of education and science studies. As my writing progresses, I hope to have the opportunity to publish some of my findings in Russian journals, as well as return to share them directly with my colleagues at the Higher School of Economics.