Conferences – the Critical Event Studies Perspective (Asunción Fernández-Villarán Ara, Rebecca Finkel, Emily F. Henderson, Ainara Rodríguez-Zulaica, Briony Sharp, Trudie Walters)

Critical Event Studies is an emerging field of research which is asking challenging questions about the events business. In this post, conferences come under the microscope of Critical Event Studies researchers.

Finkel et al coverCritical event studies is the examination of the social world within the framework of a special event or series of planned events. Although it has only been developing as a scholarly field for just over two decades, more and more scholars have analysed broader economic, social, and political issues by situating them in specific event landscapes and evaluating impacts on communities and places. Drawing on cross-disciplinary literature, methodology, and approaches, mainly from the social sciences, critical events studies shows that we can learn a lot about a society by the way people gather and celebrate. By investigating special events, we can learn who and what is important – and unimportant – and how this may be manifested in everyday life.

Although there are some intersections with sport and tourism, critical event studies has been recognised as a subject with its own literature and approaches, and it is therefore unique in its storytelling and experiential narratives. The demand for academic publications focusing on these topics became apparent in a recent edited volume, Accessibility, Inclusion and Diversity in Critical Event Studies (Finkel, Sharp, Sweeney, 2019). This illustrates three key points: 1) many scholars in multiple social science and humanities fields are engaging with critical event studies, not only those in specific ‘events’ disciplines; 2) there is international research being conducted in this area; and, 3) there are classes being taught in higher education institutions on almost every continent about issues related to accessibility, inclusion, and diversity in planned events contexts. This is very encouraging indeed. This book advances the dialogue and illustrates the importance of evidence-based research for improving scholarship and practice in the events sectors.

Although the focus for critical event studies is often based around festivals, sport and cultural events, there has recently been an emerging critical interest in conferences, business events, and the MICE industry. Introduced above, Accessibility, Inclusion and Diversity in Critical Event Studies highlights conferences as an important, but often overlooked area of academic research. The book includes three chapters focusing on research relating to conferences, such as venue accessibility, caring responsibilities and conference participation, and conference organisation with an eye to diversity. Overall, there is a call for more inclusive interpretations of participation in international conferences. This post situates the three chapters from this book within the critical events studies field, highlighting the contribution that the book makes to this emerging subject.

‘Measuring accessibility in MICE venues: the case of the Euskalduna Conference Centre (Bilbao, Spain)’ – Chapter 15, Ainara Rodríguez-Zulaica and Asunción Fernández-Villarán Ara

IHC entrance Delhi
Steps at the IHC venue, Delhi (Emily Henderson)

MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Exhibitions) tourism is a growing industry with a promising future. It contributes greatly to destinations both economic and socially, as well as to the tourism industry itself. Many issues related to events in general are even more important in these MICE events, which gather hundreds or even thousands of people with a business purpose in our cities and towns. Sustainability, digitalization or inclusivity are major topics that have to be considered and studied by professionals in this sector. The chapter included in Accessibility, Inclusion and Diversity in Critical Event Studies approaches with a critical view the importance – or indeed the necessity – of thinking, analysing and working with destinations and the MICE industry in order to provide adequate facilities and events to fully meet accessibility standards. Our chapter falls within a critical event studies approach because we ask how accessibility and inclusivity can be approached from a holistic perspective, reaching into dark corners where difficult questions may hide.

‘Total accessibility’ must be understood as an issue that not only affects the event itself, but must be considered during the whole value chain (i.e. from initial contact with the event systems to returning home after the event). Starting with the information on the website, social media and brochures in the pre-event stage, different guidelines and requirements help us make our MICE events and facilities more accessible. The chapter is based on a case study of the Euskalduna Conference Centre in Bilbao, Spain, where inclusive strategies have been adopted in an effort towards full inclusivity for tourism and citizenship. This case study provides a clear example of how every single aspect of an infrastructure (not only the building but also the people that are part of it) can work together in order to achieve a common goal of total accessibility. Each chapter of the book poses some questions for further reflection at the end – our questions ask about the implications for accessibility when event organisation is outsourced, how all stakeholders can be involved in inclusivity practices (see also Dai O’Brien’s post), and how we might approach standardising accessibility across different countries with different legislations.

‘Academics in two places at once: (not) managing caring responsibilites at conferences’ – Chapter 16, Emily F. Henderson

EH care name tags
Care name tags (Emily Henderson)

Academic conferences are important sites for the development of careers, networks and knowledge communities, but they are also experienced by many as exclusionary spaces. As other authors for Conference Inference have shown, conferences are exclusionary on the basis of gender and caste, employment status, linguistic difference, and the list goes on. This chapter focuses on the ways in which academics who have caring responsibilities manage conference participation. The chapter particularly focuses on how academics manage their caring responsibilities while at the conference. This angle differs from other approaches to conference inclusivity which focus on getting academics through the door of the conference, e.g. through conference bursary schemes. While recognising that it is important to facilitate access to conferences, this chapter recognises that getting through the door may not guarantee access within conferences i.e. participating fully in the conference. The chapter addresses the phenomenon of trying to be ‘in two places at once’, the title of the research project which underpins the chapter. The study focused on one case study conference per participant, and involved keeping a time-log of when contact occurred with co-carers or caring responsibilities, or when related conversations or thoughts occurred.

The chapter as a whole addresses the challenges of managing caring responsibilities alongside attending a conference, particularly because of the inflexibility of conference schedules. While participants used the conference schedule to plan ‘check-up’ style contact, often unforeseen incidents occurred which were incompatible with fully participating in the conference. This led to a feeling of ‘losing’ against time at the conference, while other moments were experienced as ‘wins’, e.g. engaging in phone use to play a game with a child at home. The chapter concludes with discussion questions which encourage more expansive consideration of care in relation to conferences and events. A critical events studies perspective here addresses the fact that event attendees are not uniform and have different needs; furthermore, taking this perspective means that we ask challenging questions such as how to facilitate access within as well as access to events.

‘A tripartite approach to accessibility, diversity, and inclusion in academic conferences’ – Chapter 17, Trudie Walters

Jubilee Conference Centre Nottingham, chairs
Expectant chairs, Jubilee Conference Centre, Nottingham (Emily Henderson)

As discussed above, academic conferences give rise to accessibility, diversity and inclusion issues for many groups including women, academics with physical or cognitive disabilities and challenges, students, early career and precarious academics, and those with caring responsibilities (see also this recent report). Conference attendance can be thought of as a social justice issue. This chapter adopts a case study approach based on the author’s role as co-Convenor of an academic association conference with a central theme of diversity. It is a reflexive examination of her personal experience over the first six months of conference planning.

The chapter presents a tripartite approach to considering accessibility in (academic) conference organisation: physical accessibility, financial accessibility and cognitive accessibility; and give examples of how these could be operationalised. The notion of physical accessibility is frequently applied only to those who have difficulty with mobility, but there are broader ways of conceptualising physical accessibility. For example, conference spaces need to be comfortable, safe and non-threatening for delegates. For delegates with hearing and sight challenges, way-faring and conference presentations need to be clear. Creating an event that is financially accessible is a significant challenge for conference organisers. This challenge is complex and multifaceted but relates to diminishing university funds for conference attendance, and the increasingly rigorous criteria being set for applications for said funding. Cognitive accessibility refers to cognitive, mental and emotional wellbeing of conference delegates, which are often hidden but very real barriers to participation. For example, sufferers of anxiety or other mental health conditions need space for time out from the noise and pressure. Fatigue is often a problem that is not catered to at conferences, with long days proving difficult for many with cognitive or physical challenges.

The chapter argues that adopting a tripartite approach facilitates diversity and fosters an environment of inclusivity, which has flow-on benefits for all conference delegates. It contributes to the critical event studies literature by providing examples of (and for) best practice, drawn from a variety of sources. It highlights the challenges and opportunities in creating accessible and inclusive conferences from the perspective of a critical event studies scholar trying to live her values and attempting to apply research to the practice of conference organisation. The discussion questions at the end invite readers to apply further reflexivity to their own event practices.

Critical event studies and conferences – the Conference Inference take

These three chapters give some snapshot views of how the critical event studies perspective can be applied to the practices of organising and researching conferences – we need to ask harder questions about events, and be more uncompromising in our approaches to inclusivity and accessibility. While this is the first post directly linking with this approach, the Conference Inference blog is a site for critical commentary on conferences, and as such we consider the blog to be aligned with this area of study. The critical event studies perspective encourages us to choose our research questions carefully, interrogating them for hidden assumptions about e.g. the uniformity of attendees’ lives and identities. Research methods also come under scrutiny, with questions arising about how the very methods we use can result in the perpetuation of exclusions. Finally, critical events studies demonstrates that a more research-led and reflexive approach to organising conferences can only contribute to opening up conferences, both in terms of access to and access within conferences.

The critical event studies Twitter hashtag: #CritEvents

About the Authors

Asunción Fernández-Villarán Ara is a tenured professor and she leads the research group Tourism at Deusto University. She currently works as Lecturer in Digital Tourism Marketing and Commercialization and Promotion of Touristic Services at the University of Deusto. Her research interests focus on business management, tourism for all, and on innovation in tourism, always pursuing improvement in management. She has participated in several projects about accessibility in tourism, intermediation and smart destination. She has published several books and chapters related to intermediation in tourism, marketing and accessibility, as well as articles in different journals. Twitter: @mafernan2010; Linkedin (view); Instagram: asunfv

Rebecca Finkel is a Reader in Events Management at Queen Margaret University and Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. The main focus of her research applies conceptualisations of social justice, equality and diversity, and cultural identity to critical event spaces. Her main research interests centre on social change, including ‘doing gender’ at festivals, resistance to globalisation processes through cultural events, and mapping human rights and global mega events. Her research is positioned within theoretical frameworks of feminist post-structuralism, and, more recently, feminist post-humanism. She is co-editor of Accessibility, Inclusion, and Diversity in Critical Event Studies (2018, Routledge) and Research Themes in Events (2014, CABI). Twitter: @rafinkel

Emily F. Henderson is an Assistant Professor in the Centre for Education Studies, University of Warwick. She is author of Gender Pedagogy: Teaching, Learning and Tracing Gender in Higher Education (Palgrave, 2015) and Gender, Definitional Politics and ‘Live’ Knowledge Production: Contesting Concepts at Conferences (Routledge, 2020), and co-editor of Starting with Gender in International Higher Education Research (Routledge, 2019). Emily’s current research projects include a 5-year project on gender and higher education in the state of Haryana, India, and ‘In Two Places at Once,’ a study of the impact of caring responsibilities on academics’ conference participation. Twitter: @EmilyFrascatore

Ainara Rodríguez-Zulaica is Head of Department of the Tourism Department at the University of Deusto (Bilbao). A teacher and researcher since 2002, she has specialized in the following areas: travel agencies, tourism intermediation, event management and industrial tourism.  Teaching both in Graduate and Postgraduate programs in Tourism and Leisure Studies. Lecturer at Haaga University (Helsinki, Finland) in 2004 and 2014, at University of Zealand (Denmark) in 2017 and at Queen Margaret University (Edinburgh) in 2018. She has published several books in Spanish related to Distribution in Tourism and the activity of travel agencias. LinkedIn: (view); Google Scholar: (view); Twitter: @ainararz1

Briony Sharp joined the Events Management team at the University of Huddersfield in July 2017 having completed her PhD at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh. Briony’s academic background specialises in major event legacy, community engagement, social impact and volunteering. Briony currently teaches across the undergraduate programme of Tourism, Hospitality and Events Management. Prior to joining the university, Briony worked within Events and Hospitality for a number of years ranging from roles within hotel management to major events, including a role at London 2012 Olympic Games, Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games & the 2018 European Championships in Glasgow. Briony’s current research examines the social impacts from hosting a major event from an individual, community and stakeholder perspective, and the potential social legacy routes developed from these impacts. Twitter: @BrionySharp__

Trudie Walters is a Lecturer in the Department of Tourism at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. Her main research interest is understanding media representations and people’s experiences of events, with a focus on marginalised groups and women. Contexts under investigation include community events and academic conferences. She is co-editor of Marginalisation and Events (2019, Routledge), Associate Editor of Annals of Leisure Research, and serves on the Boards of Directors of the World Leisure Organisation and the Australian and New Zealand Association of Leisure Studies. Twitter: @walterstrudie

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