“The Sociological Review’s 2018 conference: undisciplined and demonstrably alive”

Emma Seddon is a PhD student in sociology at Newcastle University, with a background in languages and translation. Her research looks at the translation industry and translators as a professional group.  Here she reflects on the Sociological Review’s recent conference in Gateshead.

The Sociological Review went out on a limb at this year’s conference: “Undisciplining: Conversations from the Edges” (18-21 June 2018). They wanted to encourage discussion and collaboration across disciplines in a conference with a difference. This “undisciplining” took various forms. The venue itself, far from being your average convention centre, was the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead – a converted flour mill. The itinerary included challenging keynotes and panels, as well as walking tours, films, board-making and practical workshops. The conference was not only “undisciplining” in name, this was fundamental to every aspect of the event. It fell somewhere between festival, exhibition and academic conference. From the beginning, Michaela Benson, the managing editor, made a clear statement that not only the conference, but also the journal did not limit itself to Sociology the discipline with a big “S”, but was committed to the sociological more broadly.

The journal’s manifesto calls for research which is “demonstrably alive”; aware of the consequences and politics of its standpoint; seeks to open up discussion and avenues for action; and doesn’t simply aim to fill a gap in the literature. This ethos was key to the opening discussion and was referenced across the three days. It’s quite unusual for a journal to have a manifesto, but this seemed aligned with such an “undisciplined” event. The theme of the conference and the spirit of the manifesto made it feel like a true call to action.

This came through in the keynotes, given by Dr Ayona Datta and Professor Jenny Reardon. Dr Datta gave the opening keynote “Undisciplining Urban Futures” –  in which she discussed her work on Indian “smart cities”. She spoke of “futuring” as a strategy of governance that sought to rescale nationhood at the scale of the urban, and brought together discourses and practices at global, national and local levels. She explored the idea of a digital class and the relationship between social mobility and technology in India, asking a poignant question: “whose urban futures are we referring to?”

Prof Reardon gave the closing keynote – “When Prairie Meets Genome” – and discussed completely different concerns and themes to Dr Datta, exemplifying the “undisciplined” nature of this conference. As part of her research, she is cycling across her home state of Kansas. Here, cycling becomes a method, an embodied form of knowing that allows her as a researcher to ask ontological and epistemological questions by engaging with a certain space, and the people – and things – within it. Her talk covered clashes between political ideals and convictions, environmental disasters, refute and subsequent acceptance of climate change, and the silent absence of indigenous peoples, among other things.

The conference also included the Sociological Review’s Annual Lecture 2018 given by Professor Satnam Virdee: “Unthinking Sociology and Overcoming its History Deficit”. For me, this was the most challenging and fascinating talk of the conference. He started by unpacking the Eurocentric beginnings of social theory and described the culturally syncretic roots of the Renaissance. He aimed to show the importance of history and how looking historically at the intertwined issues of race and class can help shed some light on the rise of reactionary populism we see today, particularly in the US and UK.

The two keynotes and the annual lecture, although presenting different subject matter, nonetheless had something fundamental in common: a desire to extend or go beyond disciplinary definitions of the sociological, the social, and what should be studied sociologically. I came away from the conference with more questions than answers – and I think that was the point. It challenged and questioned what the discipline of sociology is and what it can – and should – do. It questioned the disciplinary barriers between sociology and other fields that deal with the sociological. It started a conversation about what foregrounding the sociological means, and challenged me not to shy away from what may be uncomfortable truths. Ultimately, it showed me what it means to do research that is “demonstrably alive”, and I think the value of that, especially during the long, lonely days of your PhD, shouldn’t be underestimated.

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