The role of professional and scientific communities in Russian history has been documented in some detail, especially in the context of the tentative emergence of a ‘civil society’ in the late tsarist period and the rise of modern state practices in the early twentieth century. Extant historiography has, however, focused primarily on the dialectics between professionalization/disciplinary formation and changing state politics. Emphasis has been placed mostly on questions of state-dependent corporate institutionalization, the problematic nature of professional autonomy, and the politicization of professional/scientific communities and their work. This research has tended to analyse individual professional/disciplinary groups independently of each other or else to fuse them into fluid categories, such as ‘the intelligentsia’, ‘the middle classes’, ‘the academic elites’ or ‘science’ as such. Absent from this has been a closer examination of the way different professional and scientific groups mutually interacted in contexts other than the socio-political.
This conference, by contrast, considered the following:
1. How did different professional groups and disciplines in Russia interact with each other around complex social or technological issues that emerged as vital interest areas claimed by diverse forms of expertise?
2. What prompted interdisciplinary and interprofessional collaboration in specific cases and why was it successful in some, while unsuccessful in others? How and why did some professional and scientific groups expand their jurisdictions in this context, while others failed and dwindled?
3. How did boundary encounters and interactions between different professional and disciplinary groups shape their respective identities? How did such relationships (re)structure these groups' realms of expertise? How did such interaction (re)form their respective work, (re)design their tools, and (re)articulate their languages?
4. How did these boundary engagements contribute towards innovation and change not only in professional and scientific work itself, but also in society more generally?
The shift of perspective entailed here also prompts a shift in focus: the empirical case studies that the conference will be examining will not be unitary professions/disciplines (in their socio-political and cultural environments), but more broadly imagined and less clearly determined zones of multiprofessional and multidisciplinary encounter – areas where different groups’ respective jurisdictional interests brought them into contact, prompting collaboration, competition and conflict.
Many of the disciplinary and professional groups whose interrelations we investigated were only in the making or in transformation, rather than fully formed and determined – something typical of zones of boundary interaction. Thus, terms such as ‘profession’, ‘science’ or ‘discipline’ were, by strategic choice, conceptualized more loosely in order to include groups that might only be aspiring to these statuses (‘mere’ occupations or emergent scientific/intellectual movements).
The recent historiography of Russian professions, sciences and the intelligentsia has already brought to the fore and explored some key examples of such multiprofessional zones. These, as a rule, cluster around matters of ‘life and death’ – biological, social or national survival or reproduction; especially those targeting issues relating to the Foucauldian notion of biopolitics: sex, gender, suicide, deviance, eugenics, child development. It is precisely these zones that have been claimed (simultaneously) by the most socially expansionist of modern professions and sciences (medicine, law, the various human and social sciences). However, even when these extant historiographies note the importance of interdisciplinary and interprofessional engagements, they rarely subject them to a sustained and focused analysis.
Our conference did precisely that – both in relation to arenas of interprofessional and interdisciplinary interaction that have, to some extent, been charted (e.g. the ‘biopolitic’ examples cited above) and those that have not received much attention in this context, yet clearly lend themselves to this kind of analysis, such as the history of Russian ‘local studies’ (kraevedenie) – a multidisciplinary field that brings together local historians, geographers, ecologists, and numerous other stakeholders. Other examples that we will examine include climate change, map-making, patent law, invalidity, translation, etc.
The conference looked at a broad spectrum of professional and scientific fields in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The approach adopted lent itself to re-examining points of (dis)continuity across the tsarist and Soviet eras. The focus on interprofessional and interdisciplinary relations does not bracket out the role that the state might have played in these dynamics, both by providing an overarching context of power relations in Russian/Soviet society and as a major stakeholder in its own right. This entails an explicit acknowledgment and inclusion of the significance of the different political contexts that Russian professionals and scientists were operating in over the time period we will explore.
The conference also drew on a range of sociological approaches to the problem of professions and sciences with which Russianist historiography has thus far not engaged directly – namely, studies that have foregrounded the dynamics of interprofessional and interdisciplinary relations as crucial to understanding the formation of professional and scientific identities and the structuring of professional or scientific work. Here we include Andrew Abbott’s System of Professions (1989), as well as studies of ‘boundary work’, ‘boundary objects’ and ‘trading zones’ in the history of science (e.g. the work of Thomas Gieryn, Susan Lee Star, and Peter Galison respectively), all of which in different ways problematize complex boundary engagements between professional or scientific groups (e.g. the building of consensus, the negotiation of collaboration, the trading off of conceptual and material resources, etc.). Other relevant sources and theoretical frameworks were also explored, such as work on ‘scientific/intellectual movements’ (Frickel & Gross 2004) – an approach to questions of innovation and change in the history of professional and disciplinary formation, which seeks inspiration in the sociology of social movements.