Conferences and Complex Care Constellations

In an update on the ‘In Two Places at Once’ research project, Emily Henderson writes about the multiple and diverse forms of care that are involved when academics attend conferences.


EH presentationEarlier this year, I embarked on a new research project about the impact of caring responsibilities on academics’ conference attendance, ‘In Two Places at Once’. In previous Conference Inference posts, I have already written about the premise for the study and about the overwhelming response I received to the call for participants. With just two interviews to go, I have now almost finished data collection for the study. And because of the nature of research funding cycles, I have already held an early findings event. Now ‘all’ that remains is to spend more time reading, theorising and analysing after the intense scramble of fighting against the expenditure deadline. What is clear at this stage is that this project has hit a nerve – and that it is thus even more important to ensure that I make the most of the intricate and yet hard-hitting data that the study has produced.

I have completed 18 of the 20 planned interviews at this stage, and each of the participants also completed a questionnaire about one conference they attended, including a time-log of the communications they engaged in about and with their caring responsibilities during the conference, as well as thoughts and feelings that arose for them. Knowing how difficult it is to generalise about the impact of caring responsibilities on someone’s life, the goal of this approach was to capture some of the minutiae of people’s caring responsibilities and the ways they interweave with everyday life. I particularly wanted to capture academics’ experiences of being at conferences while managing caring responsibilities (present at the conference and/or back home), because where support is offered by conference organisers and higher education institutions it tends to facilitate academics’ access to conferences. I wanted to explore beyond this form of access to look at access within, or how the experience of attending conferences is also impacted upon. After generating accounts about one specific conference, I was then able to ask participants to compare how it compared to other conferences they had attended, and thus obtain a sense of the general as well as the specific. The interviews, which tended to last an hour, involved questions about the questionnaire and time-log as well as some more general questions about conference attendance. I am at an early stage of analysis – just far in enough to have produced some preliminary findings for the seminar – but some areas are already opening up as clear avenues for further exploration. These will feature in future Conference Inference posts, so stay tuned!

Some of these avenues include:

Access to conferences

International travel

The long-term timescale of pre-conference planning and post-conference recovery

The strategies that academics employ to stay in touch/make up for their absence

Managing the unexpected happening

Questions of value – is it worth it?

In the remainder of this post, I want to focus on another key aspect of this project – namely, the diversity and multiplicity of caring responsibilities and types of care that have emerged from participants’ accounts. This aspect of the project is challenging because the findings could be said to undermine the possibility of coming up with straightforward interventions and actions that provide solutions for the problem of accessing conferences. However I firmly believe that, in line with the poststructuralist research tradition (see eg. St Pierre and Pillow, Working the Ruins), sometimes we need to open up research to complexity before working out how to move towards concrete actions. Often care initiatives in academia are targeted to specific care types, in general childcare provision or bursaries for childcare. While this type of initiative is arguably effective at producing the most impact for the most common challenges, at the same time the availability and visibility of these schemes reinforces the invisibility of other forms of care – not to mention the intricate complexities of people’s individual lives.

In Marie-Pierre Moreau and Murray Robertson’s forthcoming report from their LFHE (Leadership Foundation for Higher Education) -funded project about academics and care, ‘Carers and Careers’, I found resonance with this desire to open up understandings of care. The report sets out a comprehensive definition of care which recognises the blurred and liminal status of different types of care – what about colleagues, for example (as in the Conference Inference post on Visiting Thai Academic Spaces), and friends. Some participants also alluded to administrative roles as care work – attending to students’ emergencies while at the conference, for example. Another participant referred to the extra-curricular club she organises for children as a form of care.

Furthermore the report lists different dimensions across which care should be considered: occasional/regular; long/short periods; proximity/distance; extensive/light-touch; practical/emotional.

These different dimensions appear across the ‘In Two Places at Once’ study, which is in part attributable to the snapshot capturing research technique of focusing in detail on one conference. In the questionnaire, participants were asked to list the caring responsibilities that they were involved with at the time of going to the conference. However it became clear from the time-logs and the interviews that participants were using a fairly limited definition of care (despite the open and inclusive definition included in the project materials) when answering that question, as in most cases a number of other names and relationships were added later to form a wider constellation. It is arguably the most obvious caring responsibilities, in general children and pets and in some cases elderly parents, which are the most dependent and thus the most significant for conference attendance. However my argument for being more aware of academics’ wider caring constellation relates to the context in which those dependents are situated – in other words, how full is the proverbial plate before the most dependent caring responsibilities are considered? This background caring landscape (both in terms of giving and gaining support) can have a huge impact on how caring for dependents works out in terms of attending conferences.


Care Constellations slideThe ‘care constellations’ image shows some of the care constellations, where caring responsibilities are in yellow, those supporting the care are in red, and those who are both caring responsibilities and supporting care are in orange. This later dual status was quite common in the study, thus blurring the roles – and in some cases making it very difficult to plan a reliable care strategy during the academic’s absence. However these illustrations still only show the brightest stars in the constellations. In several cases, more distant family members became relevant to conference experiences because of incidents which occurred during or around the time of the conference. One participant spent part of the conference trying to work out if she needed to plan a visit to a very elderly aunt the following week; another had to take on extra care work before and during the conference because her partner’s grandmother had just been diagnosed with cancer; another participant spent some time at the conference trying to understand what had happened to her cousin, following a distressed Facebook status. These different incidents gave rise to a different set of responsibilities – more at the occasional or less involved level as mentioned above – which nonetheless reveal the extent to which care is unpredictable and ever-changing.

The complexities of academics’ care constellations need further exploration as I plunge deeper into analysing the time-logs and interviews, but I adhere to the necessity of exploring the uniqueness of each constellation, each participant’s conference experience. It is my view that proceeding without an understanding of these complexities can result in an exclusionary practice that reinforces assumptions about what people need.

Further information about ‘In Two Places at Once’:

Project website

Past and forthcoming events and project outputs

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