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Kazakhstani sociology. To believe, not to check…

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Газета "Білімді ел –образованная страна" №19, 13 октября 2015г.


We often hear about sociological studies during election campaigns or from politicians and civil servants, who use these studies to support their arguments and proposed solutions. However, the situation with the market for Sociological Research is unclear. In this paper, I clarify this issue by examining the following questions: who conducts these studies, and on whose behalf are, they conducted? What is the societal need for sociological data? What are the market trends for sociological research in Kazakhstan and internationally?

The market for sociological research in Kazakhstan has emerged relatively recently, only in the 1990s. During this period, the first department of sociology in the country was opened within Al-Farabi Kazakh State University (KazGU). The graduates of KazGU and L. N. Gumilyov Eurasian National University (ENU) became members of the first research agency in the country. Development of sociological research, social science and the institutionalization of the profession is described in detail in the works of Kazakh social scientists including Biekenov K.U., Sadvakasova A.K., and Shaukenova Z.K.[1]

According to the annual report of the ESOMAR World Association of Research Professionals, global market research amounted to 40 billion USD in 2013. In neighboring Russia, the value of research amounted to 429 million USD. Kazakhstan is not included in the list of countries for which similar statistics have been compiled, but according to Alexander Ruzanov, head of the leading Kazakhstani Research Agency «BRIF Research Group»[2], the volume of market research in the country ranges from 15 to 20 million USD annually. The cost of research expenditure is 1 USD per person in Kazakhstan, 3 USD in Russia, and in the UK, one of the world's market research leaders, 78 USD per person. These figures illustrate the research market for Kazakhstan and directions for future development.

The above described numbers quantify the marketplace for research as a whole, the majority of which is categorized as market research. Sociological measurements (public sector)[3] occupy only 8% of the global research market. This is not surprising - market research serves the business environment and is connected with large financial flows. Social science research, in a majority of countries, makes up a small share of the overall amount of research performed. The exceptions are countries such as North Korea (28%), New Zealand (20%), Pakistan (20%), Australia (20%) and Switzerland (18%), where the public sector budget supports about one-fifth of the market research.

The sectoral specialization of research in Kazakhstan is consistent with global trends. Sociological studies occupy a small niche, wherein the main customer is the Kazakhstani state. According to a content analysis conducted in 2013 by the research company MarketPro Consult headed by S. Orazbekova, 25 companies participate in the market for public procurement of sociological studies. In 2012, 261 million tenge (1.7 million USD) and in 2013, 357 million tenge (2.3 million USD) was allocated for sociological research from the state budget.[4]

The most frequently pursued topics for research are political studies.  This includes, for example, analyses of the Messages of the President, the socio-political situation in the country and in the regions, interethnic and interfaith relations, monitoring of extremism and terrorism, etc. Additionally, commissioned studies include those examining issues of education, youth, public health, addiction, housing, corruption, capital issues, evaluation of the activities of various government agencies, etc.

Among the main consumers of the reports produced by the sociological research, organizations are the Ministry of Culture and Sport, Department of Internal Policy of Astana, Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies under the President of RK (KISI).  Astana-based research companies constitute the majority of contracted sociological service providers in Kazakhstan. The share of Almaty-based research institutions is 26%. Regional companies account for 23% of government contracts.[5]

Today there are 35 Doctors of sociological sciences, 77 candidates of sociological sciences, and 7 sociology PhD holders in Kazakhstan. They are all directly or indirectly involved in conducting sociological research. However, despite the presence of such a large number of experts, the market of sociological research has a range of problems.

One of the pressing issues for sociological market research is the quality of its implementation. The vast majority of sociological research in Kazakhstan is sponsored or ordered by the state. This fact raises a number of questions about the quality of the studies, including the bidding process, the competence of the customer with regards to the terms of reference, the research purpose (e.g. rote utilization of a budget allocation, or the desire to get the data to make specific decisions), etc.

The demand for sociological research from government agencies has increased dramatically over the past ten years. Significant funds have been allocated by the state for sociological research. However, is it possible that this situation has led to the development of sociological studies of the market, which distort the true purposes of sociology? The answer to this question remains open.

The quality of sociological research has been influenced by the public procurement format. Public authorities can use the services of sociological research organizations for the means of competition or soliciting bids. Sociological research organizations can be given the requirements for their research needs in a competitive format. Every participant has right to conduct a sociological research in the format of proposals, and the winner is the one who offers the lowest price. An analysis of a government procurement website shows that for the most part, state agencies resort to the bid format. As a result among those who perform sociological research are people and companies who are far from the discipline of sociology. In the best case, there are former supervisors and interviewers who have no sociological training and the worst case consists of people and companies that were attracted solely by the possibility of making money. Such companies underbid at the expense of quality and win tenders.

As noted in an interview with the director of the sociological agency "KOMKON-2 Eurasia" Sergei Vanner[6], "those who bid on a public tender on the basis of the lowest price offer, they often win the IE (individual entrepreneurship) which is hardly sufficient for what needs to be done."

In addition, one of the trends in the development of the competitive situation is access to the market research companies operating in contiguous (or non-contiguous) areas (for example, management consulting, real estate, advertising, and training). This effect is connected with the fact that, all things being equal, that "advertisers", "PR workers, " and "promoters" are in many cases "closer" to the client than “researchers.” These facts have led to a significant decline in the quality of sociological research.

On the other hand, a great impact on the quality of case studies and obtained results is the level of technical specifications. Insofar as clients are public research institutions, the technical specifications are drawn up by civil servants. Most of them have no sociological education, so the idea of ​​how the sociological study should be conducted is, in the best case, drawn from the Internet, and at worst it will be by created by “intuition” or the civil servants’ own understanding. As a result, there have appeared "masterpieces" of technical specifications, which in terms of sociological research projects are called opinion polls, where the number of respondents is 10 thousand people or more, the dictated terms of the study are unrealistic, and the proposed budget is many times different (lower or higher) than the actual costs of the study.

For example, most government customers have a one-sided understanding of the methods of collecting primary sociological data. There is a strong stereotype in society that social research and opinion polls are the same thing. Analysis of the requirements of the methods of sociological research, as evidenced by customers on the public procurement website, unfortunately confirms this trend. Technical tasks are reduced to the task of creating the questionnaire.

As noted in an interview with Gulmira Ileuova, director of the Center of  Social and Political Studies "Strategy"[7] referring to the site " Public procurement " where the ads are placed on tenders for research, officials invaded the" holy of holies "of sociologists - the methodology, program research, dictating its objectives, methods, volumes, sample characteristics.  As a result of these tenders and competitions winning organization where the quality is highly questionable.’

"Civil servants who make up the terms of reference on millions of research should be a higher competence in determining the methodology and methods of sociological research. Sociologists tend to use a set of methods that allow looking at the problem situation from different angles by measuring quantitative and qualitative components of the problem to obtain reliable data. Often the theme of the research involves using qualitative methods - focus groups, expert surveys, interviews, but officials routinely impose massive survey.

Another problem that significantly affects the quality of the research is related to the determination of the number of respondents for the mass survey. Budget money is allocated for studies including large volumes of samples. There are 3,300 respondents in the average study. Customers reflect the stereotypical belief of the state that the more people polled people the more reliable the results.  As a result, government officials ask for 5000-10000 people instead of an appropriate sample size. It is known that after reaching a certain threshold (usually estimated at 400 respondents), the accuracy of the sample to depends to a greater extent on its structure than on its volume; a survey of 10,000 people could easily be less accurate than a survey of 500. Therefore, results of many studies may indicate an irrational approach to sample size and accuracy of the data.  The cause of this is often the lack of competence of the customers.

Another substantial issue for sociological research by state order is their goal orientation. Why do officials seek information from social scientists? Are their questions directed towards resolving pressing social issues or to obtain budget money? Is it possible to trace whether the data obtained by researchers are actively used in the work of civil servants or if the majority of the reports are "on the table"? Analysis of the research subjects, which are often the same in different departments and which have a solid budget suggests that it is a mechanism to develop their respective budgets.

Another difficulty that affects the quality of the research is the politics of finance. According to experts, the system of allocation of funds works clumsily. In sum, the state allocates a large budget to carry out sociological studies, however, the question arises how objective the quoted cost of the study is in each case. There are two trends in the formation of the research budget: excessive, unreasonable overstatement of the budget or an unrealistically low price for the project. The procurement site shows that some studies are allocated tens of millions of tenge from the budget, while others are only allocated a few hundred thousand tenge, while the difference in the number of respondents between these studies is not significant. What are these figures based on? How do the customers make calculations from the state in determining these budgets? The budgets of repeated studies are even more interesting. If we assume that in the first part of the research budget was calculated based on the compilation or creation of methodology and tools, why is repeated research with an existing questionnaire allocated a similar amount as in the first study? It seems that it is about the laundering of money or irrational use of budget funds.

The author of this article faced the lack of access to Kazakhstani materials while trying to review reports of sociologists on the results of research. The results of the majority of sociological research carried out for public authorities are not published and are used for internal use only. This means that the data are closed and social scientists have no possibility to perform a secondary analysis. Society and experts raise the questions of “what is sociology?” and “what does it do for society?” The general public and professional communities do not know who works in this area. Sociological services may become visible to the public only during election campaigns. However, sociological brands are established on the basis of years of constant effort in order to increase the weight of their estimates of electoral processes. In general, Kazakhstani companies do not have the budgetary resources to carry out full investigations at their own expense today. Sociological agencies live from order to order.

Thus, it is necessary to solve a number of issues for the further development of the market of sociological research in Kazakhstan.

Firstly, the state as the main initiator of and the customer for creation of sociological data must establish clear mechanisms for the formation of orders of the case studies, control over their implementation, adoption of the results and use of the data for the current operation and decision-making. It is necessary to create an advisory council consisting of professional sociologists, who will consider research topics constituting the terms of reference, justify the budget and take the results of the study.

Secondly, it is necessary to review the mechanism of public procurement for social science research and refuse the format of bids.

Thirdly, to implement adequate requirements which will be adopted by the expert council during the procurement on a competitive basis.

Fourthly, it is necessary to create legal controls governing the use of the obtained data in the direct activities of state bodies.

Fifthly, the results of sociological studies should regularly be reported to the general public. Transparency and openness in this area will create a discussion platform, which will hone the tools and mechanisms of sociological projects that will lead to a more efficient and intensive development of Kazakhstan's sociology.

Finally, it is necessary to develop the expert potential to analyze the results of sociological research that will improve the quality of decisions on the basis of their political decisions. Otherwise, the case studies in Kazakhstan will be directed to "the result for the result."

The proposed measures are important both to improve the level of sociological research and use of the public funds rationally

The founder of Russian classical sociology Pitirim Sorokin compared human society with a wave of the sea, "in which individuals, like waves, are surrounded by their own kind, constantly collide with each other, arise, grow and disappear, and the sea - society - rages eternally, worries and does not stop..." Society needs to explore systematically, investigate, diagnose and predict in order that these seemingly carefree ripples not to turn into a raging storm. It is necessary to cultivate, maintain and develop our domestic sociology in order to prevent such a negative outcome.


[3] Global Market Research 2014, Published by ESOMAR. Amsterdam, P. 16

[4] Оразбекова С.Р. Оценка системы государственных закупок услуг по проведению социологических исследований //Сборник материалов V Конгресса социологов Казахстана. Алматы, 2014. С. 342, 358.

[5] Оразбекова С.Р. Оценка системы государственных закупок услуг по проведению социологических исследований //Сборник материалов V Конгресса социологов Казахстана. Алматы, 2014. С. 351.