The idea of establishing an independent sociological center first came in the late 1980s. It was the initiative of Viktor Voronkov and Oleg Vite, who, at the time, were employees of the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences (the Leningrad branch). Inspired by the rapid social and political changes taking place in the country, they gathered a group of enthusiasts and started conducting their own independent research projects that were unthinkable in the framework of the Soviet academic system. eduard fomin, elena Zdravomyslova, and Ingrid Oswald actively participated in the practical implementation of this idea. They all shared a desire to create a flexible, democratic research institution that would be capable of responding to the demands of a quickly changing Russian society and of promoting the integration of Russian  sociologists into the international sociological community. The new institute was also tasked with becoming an intellectual and resource center  for social scientists and nongovernmental Russian and international organizations.

The Centre actually began working a few years before it was legally registered in 1991. All of the Centre’s activities, including the organization and running of constant seminars, were conducted at Viktor Voronkov  and Elena Zdravomyslova’s apartment. Graduates and students of sociology (who have since become employees of the Center) were drawn to the

Centre’s research work. It was at this time that the principles of the Centre’s work crystallized. To this day, the place that CISR occupies in the sociological community is defined by its methodological priorities: the Centre’s team works in the tradition of constructionism and interpretative sociology and applies qualitative research methods to its work.

Since 1991 Centre has developed into a significant research organization with its own identity and has achieved recognition in the professional community. In 2009, CISr received the prestigious John and Catherine Macarthur foundation award that is presented annually to some of the world’s most effective and creative organizations.

In 1994, the Centre acquired an apartment in the Vasilyevsky Island area of St Petersburg that became its office for the next six years. Thanks to the active participation of Ingrid Oswald and the support of Peter Lock and other colleagues and friends, CISR grew, received grants from international foundations, conducted various research projects, and became a visible actor in the Russian and international sociological communities. At this time, CISR developed a strong partnership with colleagues from Germany and Finland, with whom several major projects were completed concerning issues of ethnicity, migration, civil society, gender, and others. By its 10th anniversary, the Centre had more than 30 researchers, the majority of whom were recent graduates of Russian universities.

One of the main Centre’s activities has always been the training of young researchers. Since 1998, CISR has been partners with the Heinrich Boell Foundation (Moscow/Berlin) working to create a scholarship program for talented young social researchers. In 2000, the German-Russian Forum and the Robert Bosch Foundation awarded CISR a commemorative medal for “Contribution to the training of young researchers.”

Researchers of the Centre worked hard to ensure that the constructionist approach (marginal for Russia in the 1990s) and qualitative methods became part of  the toolkit of social sciences in Russia. To do this, CISR held international methodological conferences such as “The Biographical Method in Post-Socialist Societies (1996)”, carried out educational projects focused on the popularization of qualitative methods for research among young sociologists, and published books detailing the results of empirical studies, including “The Construction of Ethnicity. Ethnic Communities in St. Petersburg (1998)”. From 1995 to 2004, the Centre issued volumes in Russian and English presenting the results of CISR’s research projects and conference proceedings.

In 2000, CISR was able to acquire new office on Ligovsky Prospect thanks to a grant from the Ford Foundation. The next year (2001), the Center received its first institutional grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. This support allowed CISR to significantly upgrade its infrastructure for research, make this research available to a larger audience, and geographically expand its activities. Furthermore, CISR was able to introduce new forms of work: for example, field summer schools aimed at training researchers, exchanging fieldwork experience, and forming teams of researchers from various regions of Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Since 2003, CISR has been running workshops on qualitative research methods for the students of intensive courses organized by the Centre for Sociological Education (Institute for Sociology, RussianAcademy of Sciences, Moscow). In 2004 and 2005, an analogous program was carried out for Swedish students in partnership with the upper school Osterlens Folkhogskola (Tomelilla, Sweden).

In 2010, CISR launched the training project “The School of Writing for Researchers” [‘Shkola π’]. The school aims to develop the academic writing skills of practicing researchers and to teach editorial and review skills. Since 2000, several independent research centers have been established in various cities (including Krasnodar, Irkutsk, Kazan, Tbilisi, Yerevan, and Baku) with CISR’s support.

In 2004, CISR initiated the creation of the Convention of Independent Sociological Centers of Russia which united around 20 research organizations. Under the supervision of the Convention, the first two books in the series “Qualitative Methods in Social Research” were published: I. Shteinberg, T. Shanin, E. Kovalev, A. Levinson “Qualitative Methods. Sociological Fieldwork” (2009) and a collection of articles “Leaving to Stay: A Sociologist in the Field” (2009).

Continuing the tradition of researching actual social processes, developing new approaches to social research, and integrating into the international community, CISR has organized several conferences: “The Social Sciences, Racial Discourse, and Discriminatory Practices” (2004); “The Biographical Research in Post-Socialist Space: 10 Years After” (2006); “The Russian Field: A View from Abroad” (2009).The collections of articles “Sociology Unlimited” [Bespredel’naia sociologiia] (2005), “Sociology Unlimited: Reload” (2006) “Sociology Unlimited: Sequel” (2012) are representative of some original CISR projects from the past years. The first collection was issued on the occasion of Viktor Voronkov’s 60th birthday, the second was published for CISR’s 15th anniversary. The collections were conceived as intellectual provocations disrupting the routine of sociological research activity. The CISR researchers’ talent of perceiving the extraordinary amid the ordinary is on full display in these collections.

The focus of CISR’s educational work is developing students’ practical sociological skills. In cooperation with the Centre for Sociological Education at the Institute for Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Moscow), the Heinrich Böll Foundation (Germany), the Association of  Independent Centers for Economic Analysis (Moscow), and the Erasmus Program, CISR implements a number of projects teaching qualitative research methods and the incorporation of empirical research into university studies.

CISR researchers also work as experts in various spheres: human rights, gender and labour relations, urban planning, the environment, and others. CISR is also home to a group of experts registered at the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC, Russia office). In 2008, FSC recognized the group of CISR consultants as the best in Russia.


A RESEARCH CENTER employs 22 research fellows: 10 hold Ph.Ds, several others are working on their dissertations. Professional areas of research include: Migration, Ethnicity, and Nationalism; Studies of Borders and Border Communities; Gender Studies; Environmental Sociology; Social Studies of the Economy; Law and Society; Urban Studies.

Yearly, approximately 30 research projects are carried out across a wide spectrum of topics. Over 50 articles are published every year in leading national and international journals. CISR researchers teach in leading Russian and foreign institutions, including: European University at St. Petersburg, St. Petersburg State University, the Higher School of Economics (St.Petersburg), Free University of Berlin, Humboldt University of Berlin, the University of Freiburg, the University of Eastern Finland, Helsinki University, John Hopkins University (USA), Yale University (USA), and others. All courses taught by CISR staff refer to their original empirical research work.


provides ideal conditions for research, the formation of international professional networks, internships and apprenticeships for young researchers, the development of civil initiatives, etc. Six of the Centre’s employees are responsible for its infrastructure’s support and development. The library contains more than 18,000 volumes and its electronic catalogue is available via the Internet. CISR’s archive contains research materials (interviews, etc.), rare magazines and newspapers, and a unique base of newspaper articles (in over 60 research areas since 1991).

Every year at CISR, more than 100 students from various St. Petersburg universities participate in an introductory internship program and more than twenty other individuals work as interns and visiting scholars. Researchers and volunteers from various countries also work in the Centre. Since 2011, multidisciplinary residency programs have been in development in Berlin (BIRUS) and St. Petersburg (InHouse).

Booklet on the 20th anniversary of CISR, can be found here.