“This is a significant time for the social sciences and humanities, which explore the world of ideas and beliefs.” – 5in10 with Yuliia Soroka
Yuliia Soroka is a sociologist of culture. She holds a PhD in Sociology, and is Professor of Sociology at the N.V. Karazin Kharkiv National University (Ukraine) and a senior researcher in the Human Geography Unit of the Department of Geosciences at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland). Her research considers symbolic spaces of Ukrainian society in different empirical fields. Previously, she looked at new independent media from the middle of 1990s, post-Soviet sociocultural transformations, social attitudes toward material wealth, the past, and the recognition of heroes, popular culture and films, and changes in urban symbolic space (i.e., toponyms), among other things. Currently, she focuses on culture and power relations. She asks, how does culture ‘work’ in the reproduction of power relationships in society? She has already empirically applied and justified the concept of ‘cultural mechanisms of power’ in prior research, including that on discourses on Muslims in Ukrainian media, social theater, hate speech, dialog, collective identities in pro-Euromaidan discourses, hostility towards internally displaced persons (IDPs), and standing greeting rituals. Located in Fribourg, Switzerland, Yuliia Soroka is a 2022/2023 non-resident Prisma Ukraïna Fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien.
How would you explain your research to someone who’s not an expert?
My research is about people who are in the occupied territories during Russia’s war against Ukraine. They survived the enemy troops’ capture of the territory and partially or completely lost contact with the territories held by Ukraine. Their lives are constantly in danger due to the loss of property and jobs, the destruction of vital infrastructure, and limited resources (from electricity and water to food). They are under constant threat of violence by the occupation authorities. But what does society know about these people under occupation? What both Ukraine and the world generally know comes largely from media reports. These reports mostly mention collaborators, people who managed to escape occupation, or dead local residents, whose graves were found after the return of Ukrainian state control to the territory. Based on these reports, an image of the people under occupation forms, which after victory and the end of the war, will become a cause of tension and conflicts. This situation is dangerous not only for people under occupation but also for society in general. Therefore, it is necessary to investigate media discourses during the war: how they function, what remains outside of their representation, and how this lack of representation affects the view of a certain category of people in society.
What intrigued you when you started your academic journey? What were formative encounters or challenges?
In the late 1980s, the time when I chose the focus of my studies, sociology had just appeared as a university discipline in the country. My teachers faced the challenge of understanding society while eliminating the empty abstractions of Soviet social sciences and instead investigating it using scientific methods. Figures such as Olena Yakuba in Kharkiv and Iryna Popova in Odesa founded local sociological scientific schools, created educational programs, and established new traditions. Later, the task of developing a socio-cultural approach in Ukrainian sociology, which was supposed to take into account the cultural aspects of the formation of Ukrainian society, became an inspiring impetus for me. The sociology of culture, which I’ve been teaching since the beginning of 2000, became a path to the subjects of media, memory, identity, symbolic spaces, and the possibilities of interdisciplinary connections with history, anthropology, and linguistics. Now, my central research question is how culture ‘works’ to reproduce power relations in society. In other words, how do the meanings, values, and norms of a certain socio-cultural space cause and reproduce the specifity of human life in different countries. In this discipline, you can also find answers to the questions of the differences between Ukraine and Russia as well as the sources of authoritarianism and how to prevent it in Ukraine.
How, if at all, has the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine influenced your research questions or approaches?
I was born in Mariupol, have family there, and, although I live permanently in Kharkiv, spent the first three weeks of the war in the city. Being in a war zone, under shelling and bombing, with the gradual disappearance of life support and communication resources, was the most difficult experience of my life. This experience also influenced my perception of how occupation is represented in public discourses. I decided to research the discourses of people under occupation. As for my scholarly approaches, they have generally not changed but have been refined. I’m applying approaches from postcolonial studies to complement my critical methodology. Similarly, I now use methods from discourse analysis, which I previously used to study groups who had limited possibilities to create a public discourse about themselves (such as Muslims or queer women in Ukraine), to analyze the discourses of people under Russian occupation.
What do you consider to be the role of the humanities and social sciences in times of upheaval, fragmented publics, and authoritarian transgressions?
During the war, people experience destruction, ruination, and death. The material supports of life – residential buildings and businesses, shops and museums, government buildings – are being destroyed or are at risk of this. Personal belongings, possessions, or a favorite tree in a park or a spot on the beach with which memories are associated can also disappear. People close to you, with whom you shared your life, home, and past, are in danger. In such conditions, people can feel the importance of something that cannot be physically grasped – the words that they believe in. Words, confidence in their meaning, and the value of this meaning are, perhaps, the only thing that is not afraid of enemy missiles. This is a significant time for the social sciences and humanities, which explore the world of ideas and beliefs. This time can be effective from the point of view of research into the symbolic spaces of society. Also, this is a time for meeting and getting closer to people and communities that are in great need of support now. Who, if not scholars in the social sciences and humanities, will help people in these difficult times have confidence in the existence of values that cannot be destroyed?
How do you think war affects memory or identity? And how does this connect to your research?
The war and the trials it causes evoke the experiences of previous generations. Accessible through family histories, which were mostly not publicly represented, they help people to survive, to accumulate material and psychological resources, and to make decisions. The Russian war against Ukraine raises many questions for people of my generation who were born in the Soviet Union and were nurtured in films about war and victory. It prompts us to reevaluate such concepts as ‘liberation’, ‘protection’, ‘brotherhood’, and ‘justice’. The war also invokes a comparison of the actions of the Russian Federation’s political regime with the actions of the Soviet government throughout its existence. All this contributes to the awareness of the importance and value of the independent state of Ukraine and the feeling of belonging to Ukrainian society. The numerous initiatives to dismantle monuments and change the names of streets associated with the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union exemplify these processes of shifting perceptions.
 The mentioned studies were done in collaboration with Olga Dzyuba. In studying the discourses of Muslims in Ukraine, I was the scientific supervisor of Olga’s dissertation. We coauthored the study on the discourses of queer women.
Citation: “This is a significant time for the social sciences and humanities, which explore the world of ideas and beliefs.” – 5in10 with Yuliia Soroka, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 30.05.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/47364