Doing Comparative Ethnography in Vastly Different National Conditions: the Case of Local Grassroot Activism in Russia and the United States

  • Nina EliasophEmail author
  • Karine Clément


Disgusted by political institutions, many activists around the world are rejecting normal politics in favor of hands-on, tangible local action. This looks similar all over the world, including in the two countries on which the paper focuses, Russia and the United States. Is it? Scholars and activists alike compare one society’s activism to another; this paper suggests ways of asking useful questions in cross-national ethnographic research. Controlling the variables of cultural, political/legal, social, and spatial conditions is impossible. With so many “out of control variables”, can comparison make any sense? Activists have varied “styles” (Lichterman & Eliasoph The American Journal of Sociology, 120(4): 798–863, 2014) of coordinating local activism in any country. Each style encounters different frictions, depending on a nation’s specific cultural, political, social, and spatial conditions. Local, interest-based, grassroot activism is a typical American “style” and is also venerated in American cultural narratives that celebrate local democracy. American activists encounter friction when trying to enact this style, when, for example, they realize that money brings power. For Russian activists, the very same style is a “surprising discovery”. Russians encounter different frictions when trying to enact this style. Examining continual, recursive pragmatic tests shows how activists move towards more, towards less, or towards different kinds of politicization.


Activism Ethnography Pragmatism Comparative politics Social inequality 



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyUniversity of Southern CaliforniaLos AngelesUSA
  2. 2.Centre d’études des Mondes russe, Caucasien et Centre-Européen (CERCEC)ParisFrance
  3. 3.Andrew Gagarin Center for Civil Society and Human RightsSt. PetersburgRussia

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