Conferences as constitutive spaces of scientific fields (Susanne Koch)

In this post Susanne Koch reflects on whether and why it makes sense to study representation and inequalities at academic conferences, even if they do not ‘mirror’ the social structure of scientific fields.

Let’s imagine a simple world. There would be a planet with one hundred residents only. Each person is exactly one or two meters tall. They have four communities of practice, namely the cooking community, the painting community, the singing community and the artisan community, and each person can only be a member of one of these. Intuitively, it would be fairly easy to assess whether the one meter and two meter inhabitants are equally represented in these groups – given that there is a defined population, it is clear who belongs to which size category and to which community of practice. It would be an easy site to study inequality (if such would exist) by way of counting people and calculating shares.

Studying social inequality in science in our real, more complex world is a more intricate endeavour. While we might be able to generate a number indicating the total population size, as in the case of the imagined planet above, it is difficult to define most other variables required. Various questions need to be answered first, including the basic question of who counts as a scientist in which community of practice, and what categories of difference are being constructed.

In recent years, various studies highlighting inequalities at academic conferences have been published. Most of them focus on gender (im-) balances, some also take into account other (socially constructed) dimensions of difference (or “axes of social disadvantage”, as Nidhi S. Sabharwal, Emily F. Henderson and Roma Smart Joseph term it here). The studies clearly show that sex, but also geographical location, race and ethnicity, social class and caste impact on representation at conferences and with that, on opportunities of professional positioning, networking and gaining visibility through taking part in these events. Many articles conclude with a call for action to tackle the inequalities identified, stressing the need for more diverse and inclusive scientific communities.

The inequalities observed at conferences are (implicitly) presented as an indicator for the social structure of a field.

I have also conducted this type of research together with my co-author Elena Matviichuk. Interested in the composition of actors involved in global forest science conferences, we analysed the past three World Congresses of the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) taking place in 2010, 2014 and 2019 (published here).

We examined the social structure of these events, showing that the actor composition has diversified, yet women and scholars working in the Global South remain under-represented particularly in actor groups with high agenda-setting and gate-keeping power such as members of scientific committees and session chairs. As other scholars doing conference research, we took our findings as an indication for the persisting male/Northern dominance in the field.

However, in the process of publishing our paper, Conference Inference co-editor Emily Henderson made us think more carefully about the inferences that can be drawn from a statistical analysis of conference representation. I shared the first draft of the article with her for feedback, and she sent me the following email:

“I found myself wondering about the relationship between the conference and the field, and how studying a conference is and is also not representative of the field (…) Do you think the aim of the study is to promote diversity in the field, which would result in more diverse conferences, or to promote diversity in conferences, which might result in a more diverse field? Or both/neither?” (email by Emily Henderson sent 08 January 2021, published with her permission).

The relationship between the conference and the field under study as raised by Emily in her comment is rarely explicitly discussed in studies on representation at conferences. Yet, it is indeed an aspect that deserves attention and raises questions, most notably:

To what extent does it make sense to study inequalities in conference participation and make more general claims for the field, especially when conferences have been shown to be sites of inequalities in academia? To what extent can conferences be assumed to reflect a field? 

Being bothered by these questions, Elena and I delved into literature again to find answers, with moderate success. While conference research has grown immensely, only few authors have so far engaged in theorising conferences as a space of scientific activity; if they do so, they often focus on one specific aspect, such as the functions and impacts of conferences for individuals. Building on two sociological contributions that both emphasise the interactive and knowledge-generating nature of scientific events (Hitzler and Hornbostel 2014, Henderson and Burford 2020), we propose to understand conferences as spaces “shaped by and shaping the social structure of a field, i.e. the power and status relations of actors involved” (Koch and Matviichuk, 2021), and thus as spaces that that reflect and reinforce patterns of inequality.

This conceptualisation resonates with our understanding of conferencing as a practice which, in the Bourdieusian sense, is structured by but also generating relations in a field. Elena and I used it for clarifying our claims and the assertions made in our study, but it certainly needs further consideration and refinement.      

I would be very glad if this blog post stimulates a discussion on the relation of conference participation and representation within fields.

The thought process that was triggered by Emily’s feedback not only resulted in the preliminary conceptualisation presented above, but also in a thorough engagement with the question of what actually ‘makes’ or bounds a field.  Put differently, if it was not ‘valid’ to draw inferences from representation at conferences for a field, then what would be a more reliable indicator for its social structure? Authorship patterns and employment statistics may be alternatives, yet they bring their own problems, at least when it comes to such an interdisciplinary field like forest science in which scholars publish in a variety of different journals (that may not be focused on forests), and are not all affiliated with faculties and departments having the word ‘forest’ in their name. So, to refer to my planet story in the beginning, it is rather difficult to determine the ‘population’ of this community of practice, and the boundaries are fluid.

In my ongoing research on forest science conferences carried out as guest researcher of CWTS at Leiden University, I am trying to grasp what actually connects the diverse community of scholars taking part therein – and, interestingly, I get a sense that more than publishing in the same journals, it is precisely these meetings that generate a feeling of belonging among the scholars involved. Therefore, while conferences certainly do not mirror a field (however defined), I am increasingly confident to say they are constitutive for social relations therein – which is why studying representation at conferences seems even more meaningful.

About Susanne Koch    

Susanne Koch (s.koch@cwts.leidenuniv.nl, susanne.koch@tum.de, @sus_koch) is currently a visiting scholar of the Centre for Science and Technology Studies (CWTS), Leiden University, and the Chair of Forest and Environmental Policy, Technical University of Munich (TUM). She is also an affiliate of the Global Research Programme on Inequality (GRIP), and research fellow at CREST and the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in STI Policy, Stellenbosch University. Holding a PhD in sociology from Bielefeld University, Susanne works at the interface of science and environmental studies. Her research focuses on gender- and geography-related inequalities and their epistemic effects in forest research, and the role of knowledge diversity in the context of societal transformation; for both themes, conferences play a crucial role. This work was supported by a postdoc fellowship of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). 

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