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  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

Richard Mole - Ethnic and Sexual Minorities

In the penultimate post of our autumn teaching series, we spoke to Richard Mole, a Professor of Political Sociology at University College London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies. Richard's research principally focuses on nationalism, sexualities and migration. He is the editor of Soviet and Post-Soviet Sexualities (Routledge, 2019) and author of The Baltic States from the Soviet Union to the European Union: Identity, Discourse and Power in the Post-Communist Transition of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as various other articles and chapters. You can find out more about his research and teaching on his staff page.

PH: Tell us a little about yourself and your research interests

I am a Political Sociologist at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies, where I have been based since 2003. My research interests have always been focused on the relationship between identity and power and, in particular, on how and why specific identity groups are othered or placed higher or lower in the social hierarchy – and the implications this has for political legitimacy, political participation and socio-legal equality. Initially, my research in this field looked at national and ethnic minorities but has shifted more recently to focus on sexual and gender minorities.

PH: How do your research interests feed into your teaching? Which courses/classes have you taught or are teaching at the moment?

I’ve been very lucky in that I have been able to incorporate my research interests into a number of my modules. When I arrived at SSEES, the first MA module I developed was Ethnopolitical Conflict. I later introduced a module on Baltic Politics & Society, which I taught with a colleague. The module developed out of my PhD and examined the history and politics of Baltic territories on the periphery of the Russian Empire/Soviet Union. Most recently, I have introduced an MA module on Sexuality and Society in Russia and Eastern Europe, the course guide for which is available on the Q*ASEEES website. An undergraduate version of the latter module – The International Politics of Sexuality – has been approved but I haven't taught it yet. It covers the same theories and themes but applies them not just to the SSEES region but to societies all over the world.

PH: How do you bring questions of centre and periphery, borderlands, or “peripheral” narratives into the classroom?

My module on Baltic Politics and Society dealt with issues of periphery/borderlands from a political and geographical perspective. It examined how the Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians sought to overcome their peripheral positions in the various empires of which they were part (German, Polish, Swedish, Russian and Soviet) in order to achieve independence and to reverse the binary hierarchy between Balts and Germans/Poles/Swedes/Russians.

My modules on Ethnopolitical Conflict and Sexuality and Society in Russia and Eastern Europe look at how and why specific sectors of society – defined in terms of their ethnicity and sexual or gender identity, respectively – are othered and marginalised and how they respond to this. Both ethnic and sexual minorities often live on the fringes of society and yet the way they are viewed and treated tells us a lot about the nature of the societies in which they live.

Baltic Pride, Vilnius 2019. Source: Wikimedia Commons

PH: What challenges do you face when trying to teach a more diverse syllabus?

I have to say that I have been very lucky at SSEES. The School has supported my teaching modules on somewhat 'niche' topics, particularly on the Baltic States and on sexuality. From that perspective, I've never faced a challenge in bringing 'peripheral' topics onto the curriculum.

The challenges I have faced have been more practical. While taking a top-down approach to the study of ethnic politics, Baltic politics or sexuality (examining laws, political discourses, etc.) is important, I find it equally if not more important to look at societies from the bottom-up, i.e. hearing the voices of those most affected by marginalisation. Finding the voices, in English, of everyday Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians at different stages of their history or the voices of queer East Europeans today has been a challenge. Where there do exist some texts and documentaries conveying the views of individual citizens, they are mostly in the local languages and this requires a lot of translating and interpreting. With the queer research, I do make use of my own interview transcripts but, again, this requires a fair bit of translating on my part.

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