“Are all the Speakers Single?”: Organising the first ever Singles Studies Conference during Covid-19 (Ketaki Chowkhani)

In this post Ketaki Chowkhani writes about making space for singlehood research in academic conferences.

Single Studies Conference

In their essay “Make Room for Singles in Teaching and Research,” DePaulo, Moran, and Trimberger argue for a singles perspective within research and teaching, as in many disciplines much scholarship discusses marriage and family without mentioning singlehood. This was the beginning of what Bella DePaulo later called Singles Studies (see e.g. this essay and this essay).

Despite statistical evidence that fewer people are marrying, there is “no singles studies program anywhere in the world”. This has led to a few interventions. In January 2020, I designed a postgraduate sociology course called Singles Studies at Manipal Centre for Humanities in India which aimed at addressing the neglected category of the single person across disciplines. It argued for the inclusion of a single person’s perspective on issues of family, gender, time, ageing, the city, law and medicine. At the same time, in the United States, Craig Wynne offered a writing course called “How to be Single and Happy” at Hampton University. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Craig and I connected via the Facebook Group, Community of Single People, discussing the “importance of the classroom to raise awareness about the legitimacy of Singles Studies as a discipline”, as Craig went on to state in the Opening Remarks of the Singles Studies conference.

This conversation led us to plan the Singles Studies: Global Perspectives conference held in October 2020 as a way to address the gap in scholarship on singlehood. Conferences are often seen as defining moments in shaping a discipline, and we envisioned this conference as a defining moment in the discipline of Singles Studies.

We argued that, if a single person’s perspective is to be integrated in research, it cannot merely be additive; it must transform the way we approach research. The conference became for us a means to explore the interdisciplinary field of Singles Studies by using singlehood as a category of analysis. It examined singlehood at the intersection of different disciplines and included scholarship from different parts of the world to understand Singles Studies as a global discipline.

Disciplines have historically developed in the Global North and then travelled to the Global South. Our aim was to situate Singles Studies, from the very beginning, at the cusp of the Global South and the Global North. The conference was designed as a collaboration between India and USA with contributions of scholars from four continents, including the countries of India, Japan, Australia, Israel, Romania, Poland, Ireland and the United States. While we missed important contributions from other continents like Africa, our aim is to fill this gap in subsequent conferences to establish Singles Studies as a decolonised discipline.

Our vision for Singles Studies was also inspired by the discipline of Women’s Studies, and for the conference we sought papers on singlehood at the intersections of gender/sexuality, caste/race, literature, media, history, law, health, city, ageing, consumerism, psychology, education, housing, and labour. While the presentations were able to cover the fields of gender, literature, media, health, psychology, the city, and housing, we hope to expand the intersections in future conferences and essay collections.

Singles Studies scholars are scattered across the globe with little or no conversation beyond their smaller groups. We wanted the conference to connect scholars of Singles Studies and their various disciplinary understandings, so that we can collaboratively take the interdisciplinary field of Singles Studies forward.

The format of a web conference also allowed us to have hundreds of participants from across the globe, with people attending for professional and personal reasons. Face-to-face international conferences of this scale would ordinarily require large amounts of funding. However, the  format of the web conference afforded us the luxury at a much lower cost, during difficult times, with a low carbon footprint. We were able to invest intellectually in an emerging field which might have otherwise not received any funding to organise an offline conference (see also these Conference Inference posts by Mareike Smolka, Emily Henderson and Joshua King).

Apart from being defining moments, conferences are also ways to work towards an essay collection. We envisioned two outcomes for our conference: firstly, to bring out an essay collection on Singles Studies which charts the field ranging from literature, to media to psychology; secondly, to collaborate to launch a dedicated Journal of Singles Studies which can be home to research in this interdisciplinary field.

The format of a conference, as opposed to just an article or book, also allowed us to get the word out about the existence and possibility of Singles Studies to scholars who never knew that such a thing existed. For others, it validated their existence as single people and made them feel represented in academia and research, as one participant asked me:

“are all the speakers single?”

While I cannot speak for all speakers, I could safely say that half of us were single and so were some of the participants. Some of the presentations during the conference were also auto-ethnographic, which allowed them to speak to a larger audience. For instance, in feedback I gathered from students after the conference, many mentioned how moved they were by Joan DelFattore’s powerful narrative of her experience of singlism as a cancer patient and that it allowed them to fully comprehend the dangers of singlism.

While we might have organised the first ever Singles Studies conference, we do hope it will not be the last, and that more people across the world will take up the initiative to mould this upcoming field.

About Ketaki Chowkhani

Ketaki Chowkhani

Dr Ketaki Chowkhani is a postdoctoral fellow at the Manipal Centre for Humanities (see also her academia.edu profile). She researches and teaches singles studies and gender studies. She has a PhD in Women’s Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Her doctoral work focused on sexuality education and adolescent masculinities in middle-class Mumbai. Her writing has appeared in the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics, Journal of Porn Studies, New York Times, In Plainspeak, Teacher Plus, DNA, Kafila.online, Roundtable India and Ultraviolet. Ketaki also has an MPhil in Cultural Studies from the English and Foreign Languages University and an MA in English from Pondicherry University. Ketaki tweets as @chowkhani

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