(Un)Making Europe: Report from the 13th ESA Conference, Athens 2017
Christian Fuchs, WIAS Director and Chair of the ESA Conference Committee 2015-2017, and Frank Welz, ESA President 2015-2017, have written a thorough conference report that may be of interest to scholars interested in the theme “(Un)Making Europe: Capitalism, Solidarities, Subjectivities”. With 3.581 participants, the 13th Conference of the European Sociological Association was the largest event in the 25-year long history of the organisation.
The 13th Conference of the European Sociological Association took place from August 29 until September 1st, 2017, in Athens, Greece. The conference theme was “(Un)Making Europe: Capitalism, Solidarities, Subjectivities”. The table below shows every ESA conference to date:
|1st||1992||Vienna, Austria||Sociological Perspectives on a Changing Europe||602|
|2nd||1995||Budapest, Hungary||European Societies: Fusion or Fission?||671|
|3rd||1997||Essex, UK||20th Century Europe: Inclusions/Exclusions||615|
|4th||1999||Amsterdam, Netherlands||Will Europe Work?||825|
|5th||2001||Helsinki, Finland||Visions and Divisions: Challenges to European Sociology||1.273|
|6th||2003||Murcia, Spain||Ageing Societies, New Sociology||1.300|
|7th||2005||Toruń, Poland||Rethinking Inequalities||1.200|
|8th||2007||Glasgow, UK||Conflict, Citizenship and Civil Society||1.646|
|9th||2009||Lisbon, Portugal||European Society or European Societies?||2.560|
|10th||2011||Geneva, Switzerland||Social Relations in Turbulent Times||2.831|
|11th||2013||Turin, Italy||Crisis, Critique and Change||2.681|
|12th||2015||Prague, Czech Republic||Differences, Inequalities and Sociological Imagination||3.459|
|13th||2017||Athens, Greece||(Un)Making Europe: Capitalism, Solidarities, Subjectivities||3.581|
Table 1: ESA Conferences, 1992-2017
The overview shows that there has been continuous growth in European sociology and also of the interest in ESA conferences. In terms of participants, the 2017 conference was six times as large as the first conference that took place in Vienna in 1992 and twice as large as the eighth conference in Glasgow a decade ago.
It is no surprise that a look at the history of ESA conference themes confirms that the ESA is particularly concerned with the dynamics of European society and societies: special attention has been given to Europe’s power structures, which is evident in the focus on issues such as exclusion, division, inequalities, conflict and differences.
Since 2008, European societies have entered profound economic and political crises that have also called the very idea of Europe into question. Sociology has therefore not just been confronted with the task of analysing power differentials, but also with aspects of this deep crisis. This is evident in recent ESA conference themes focusing on turbulence, crisis and the need to imagine alternatives. The 2017 conference’s theme foregrounded the crisis of European societies by focusing on crisis as a process of making and unmaking and stressing in this context the role of capitalism, political solidarities and the transformation of subjectivities.
Greece has turned into Europe’s austerity-laboratory, where the “Troika” has imposed neoliberal policies that have been taken to the extreme, resulting in both deep inequalities and resistance. To hold the 2017 conference in Greece was for us a symbol that we need a critical public sociology that focuses on the big questions that turbulent and crisis-ridden societies face today and which helps to envision alternatives.
‘Athens’ has obviously been electrifying to sociologists: keynote speakers happily accepted the invitation, participants eagerly registered. The coincidence of conference theme – (Un)Making Europe: Capitalism, Solidarities, Subjectivities –, overreliance on capitalism, austerity measures and evaporating European solidarities in Greece, and the specific site of the conference stimulated us all to think more rigorously and beyond our daily narrow activities about the ‘big questions’ of sociology and society today. Three full days of hot discussions (but free water has been offered, by more than 200 enthusiastic student volunteers) included 2.900 papers offered by the new peak of 3.581 participants. The conference ended with an open-air conference party on top of Athens’ brand new Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, where possibly exhausted, definitely relaxed and conspicuously happy sociologists were dancing until midnight (if not later).
The Intellectual Core: Sociology, Where to Go?
ESA conferences have to fulfill two functions, an intellectual one and a social one. Thanks to the work of 37 Research Networks and further Research Streams, it is not very difficult to complete the second one. The bottom-up task is to create a European-wide inclusive space for sociologists to meet, exchange and get scholarly feedback on their current work. By contrast, it is more challenging to accomplish the overarching task of setting the appropriate conference theme which gives a cognitive face to the meeting. At the conference, ESA delegates presented internationally excellent research to an international audience and participated in discussions central to the discipline of sociology and to society more generally. These discussions occurred in the wider context of the marketisation of academia and the increasing impact, on academics and students, of neoliberal managerial agendas in Universities, alongside imperatives to design research according to centralised funding criteria. This is resulting in the fragmentation of sociological research – as it is torn up into small, unconnected, pieces. In our view ESA meetings should include discussions that challenge such hyper-specialisation. How can we avoid sociology being determined by the current conditions of knowledge production? How can we avoid the tendency that sociology is passively carried by commercial interests and fashionable themes instead of focusing on analysing the forces that shape society’s transformations? Where will sociology go in the future? Should we readdress society’s big questions that were first raised by the sociological ‘classics’ who were amongst the first to carry out theoretically informed empirical research? For us, ESA’s 2017 conference theme, “(Un)Making Europe”, means that it is the joint task of sociologists to unmask society’s power structures and to analyse new forms of political economy and governmentality that constitute subjectivities and regulate our practices, in a world in which there is no other way out of a structural crisis than solidarity between people. But how can solidarity develop?
Opening Plenary: Eva Illouz and David Harvey
Our keynote speakers raised and explored these big questions in relation to the themes of the conference. In the opening plenary “(Un)Making Capitalism”, David Harvey (US) stressed the relevance of Marx’s works for the critical analysis of contemporary societies. Eva Illouz (FR) analysed the relationship of capitalism, sexuality and technologies in what she terms emotional capitalism. The second plenary “(Un)Making Europe” featured Yanis Varoufakis (GR) and Donatella della Porta (IT). Varoufakis argued for a European New Deal, solidarity, while della Porta analysed social movements in the context of Europeanism and Euroscepticism. In the closing plenary “(Un)Making Subjectivities”, Wendy Brown (US) analysed the rise of the far right and new nationalisms in the context of neoliberalism. Hartmut Rosa (DE) argued for a critical theory that foregrounds the notion of resonance for bringing about a paradigm shift in society.
Special Evening Event with Yanis Varoufakis, Frank Welz (ESA President 2015-17)
and Donatella della Porta
ESA conferences’ main backstage problem has been the language divide in European sociology. How can we support colleagues so that sociological research undertaken and published in languages other than English can also be heard? At the 2017 conference, we (optionally) introduced a new bottom-up abstract submission process for some of the semi-plenaries. The effect has been that the rate of non-native English and female semi-plenary speakers roughly doubled to about 60% each. Since 2013, one of the ESA’s core strategies has been that the conference offers all (11) of the parallel time slots exclusively to sessions of Research Networks and Research Streams: Research Networks and Streams are the core of the ESA conference.
The 2017 conference introduced another optional session type: The RN keynote (used by 6 RNs) and round table sessions. While we are not so sure about the success of the RN keynote sessions (1 featured presenter and 3 commenters instead of 4 different presentations as usual), we received very positive feedback on the actual practice of the “RoundTable” sessions that according to its organisers enabled space for focused and profound debate.
The conference featured a total of 2.889 presentations organised in 831 sessions. The latter were organised in the form of 37 Research Networks with a total of 733 sessions, thirteen Research Streams with 57 sessions, eleven PhD sessions, one General Assembly, thirteen Mid-Day Specials, three plenaries, and thirteen semi-plenaries. Table 2 presents some statistical data that compare the 2017 Athens conference and the 2015 Prague conference.
|Variable:||Athens 2017||Prague 2015|
|Total participants (without cancellations)||3.581||3.459|
|Share of ESA members in participants||66.4% (2.378 in total)||48%|
|Number of new ESA members through conference registration||1.302||N/A (not available)|
|Number of cancellations of registered participants||116||115|
|Share of participants from band-2 countries||15.6%||11%|
|Share of student participants||29%||31%|
|Share of Early Bird registrants||78%||74%|
|Total number of submissions:||5.160||5.260|
|Total number of accepted submissions:||4.474||Not available (N/A)|
|Total number of rejected submissions:||640||N/A|
|Authors with two submissions||965||279|
|Total number of accepted and presented submissions:||2.889||2.884|
|Number of Withdrawals of accepted submissions (drop-outs)||1.585||N/A|
(share of withdrawls in the number of accepted submissions)
|Number of rejected or withdrawn submissions; and their share in the total number of submissions||2.225; 43.5%||N/A|
|Number of invited speakers||20||35|
|Number of reviewers||405||200|
|Average conference fee||195 €||232 €|
Table 2: Some statistics about the 2017 ESA Conference (data sources: ConfTool statistics for the 2017 conference, European Sociologist #39 (1/2016): page 15, table 1)
The mid-day specials featured four book author meets critics sessions, two ESA lecture series sessions, two sessions on journal publishing, one session each on Greek civil society, academic freedom, university restructuring, research funding, research and impact assessment. Semi-plenaries were held on the topics of the European public sphere, migration, food consumption, child refugees, the Greek crisis, Europe, capitalism, solidarities, subjectivities, extremism, care and affective labour, Eastern European capitalism, and public sociology. As mentioned above a number of semi-plenaries used an open submission and selection process that was complemented by the established method of invited speakers who are leading experts on the semi-plenary themes. This combination aimed at giving both established researchers and unknown talents voice and visibility.
Tables 3 and 4 provide overviews of the regional composition of the ESA conference.
|Region||Athens 2017||Prague 2015|
|America||3.1% (Latin America & Caribbean: 1.3%, USA & Canada: 1.8%)||3.7%|
|Oceania (Australia & New Zealand)||0.6%||1.2%|
Table 3: Share of conference participants per region (data sources: ConfTool statistics for the 2017 conference, European Sociologist #39 (1/2016): page 15, table 2; classification of regions based on the United Nations geo-scheme)
|Region||Share of European conference participants||Share of European regions in total European population|
Table 4: Regional division of European conference participants, classification of regions based on the United Nations geo-scheme (data sources: ConfTool statistics for the 2017 conference, United Nations Population Division-statistics)
In ESA conferences, there has traditionally been an over-representation of Northern and Western European sociologists and an under-representation of Southern and Eastern sociologists. In 2017, the conference hosted delegates from 77 countries. The ten countries with the largest number of participants were Greece (586), the UK (511), Germany (467), Italy (394), Poland (267), Turkey (265), Spain (235), Russia (212), Finland (194), France (193). It is notable that some Southern and Eastern countries are among those with the largest absolute number of conference delegates and that there was an especially high level of participation from Southern Europe. In 2017, there continued to be a relatively high proportion of Northern European participants and a relatively low share of Eastern European participants. Regional divisions at different organisational levels remain an issue for the ESA that reflects the uneven development of Europe and global society. At the same time, we also find uneven development within each region and country so that it has become an important task to defend critical social science as part of the struggle against neoliberal university models, in which universities become corporations and the worldview and approaches of business and management colonise academia.
General Assembly on Friday, 1 September 2017
There have been repeated complaints that the ESA conference fee is too high. The level of the conference fee does not come out of the blue. From an organisational point of view, reducing the conference fee risks making a financial loss, which in respect of the Athens conference was a particularly pertinent issue because operating a conference under extreme austerity conditions required special infrastructural investments (e.g. for refurbishment and a large number of computers, projectors, screens and other infrastructure). Nonetheless, the ESA managed to introduce a reduced conference rate of €160 for unemployed sociologists. The 2017 average fee of €195 has been the lowest conference fee since at least ten years (2015: €232).
Universities and scholars in Greece have been particularly hard hit by the ongoing crisis, which has resulted in high salary cuts and extreme cuts to the budgets of public universities. To organise the ESA conference at, and together with, two public universities (Panteion University, Harokopio University) was for the organisers an important political symbol in order to stress the importance of all public services for society. Organising the conference under the continued imposition of austerity on Greek academia and society posed practical challenges. The renounced commitment of the initial university-host together with the fact that years of austerity have starved and crippled Greek public services, including public universities’ infrastructure, almost resulted in the cancellation of the conference. It is truly sad what capitalism, neoliberalism and austerity are doing to Greece, the Greek people and their public services. The ESA and the local organising committee worked tirelessly to organise an alternative which resulted in a co-operation with Panteion University and Harokopio University and enabled the conference to go ahead.
The 2017 ESA Conference “(Un)Making Europe: Capitalism, Solidarities, Subjectivities” was from our point of view an important event that provided a social space for the critical sociological discussion of the future of Europe, economy and society. In times of deep capitalist, political and ideological crises, critical sociology and its contribution to the public is of vital importance.