Gender, Definitional Politics and ‘Live’ Knowledge Production: Contesting Concepts at Conferences

This post announces the paperback release of the book ‘Gender, Definitional Politics and ‘Live’ Knowledge Production: Contesting Concepts at Conferences’ and discusses how other researchers responded to the book at an online symposium.

Editor’s note: March 8th is International Women’s Day. Throughout March-April, Conference Inference has hosted a special series of posts which focus on gender, feminism and conferencing – this is the final post in the series (see post 1 and post 2). For more information on International Women’s Day follow #IWD2021 on social media or take a look at the International Women’s Day website. For examples of conferences research which focus on gender and feminism see here.

It is a rare event that an academic book is published that is entirely about conferences. Examples are Judith Mair’s Conferences and Conventions: A Research Perspective and Donald Nicolson’s Academic Conferences as Neoliberal Commodities. In 2020, Emily F. Henderson (Co-editor of Conference Inference) published Gender, Definitional Politics and ‘Live’ Knowledge Production: Contesting Concepts at Conferences with Routledge, and the book has now been released as a paperback as of March 2021. The book is a theoretical and ethnographic exploration of feminist conferences as sites of knowledge production about gender. 

The blurb:

Waking up to the reactivity of concepts, to their myriad possibilities for signification, to the range and strength of affective responses they provoke, can happen at any time, in any place. Conceptual contestations shake up the comfortably consolidated foundations of sociological knowledge production, but they also have consequences for the ways in which lives are understood, researched and legislated for. This book is dedicated to exploring the definitional politics which surround the concept of gender in ‘live’ knowledge production.

While conferences remain an under-researched phenomenon, this volume places conference knowledge production under the spotlight; conferences, in particular national women’s studies association conferences in the UK, the US and India, are explored as sites where definitional politics play out. The cumulative theorisation of ‘live’ conceptual knowledge production that is developed throughout the book draws on established constructs such as performativity, citationality, intersectionality, materiality and events, but works with them in combination in a new, unique way. The book as a whole calls for more attention to be paid to conceptual knowledge production, so as to make more space for potentially transformative conceptual change.

In 2020, an online seminar hosted by the Department of Education Studies at the University of Warwick, and chaired by Rebecca Morris, was dedicated to discussing Gender, Definitional Politics and ‘Live’ Knowledge Production from different angles. In addition to the presentation of the book by the author, the speakers included Jenny Parkes and Elaine Unterhalter (UCL Institute of Education), Paul Warmington (Education Studies, Warwick), Ketaki Chowkhani (Centre for Humanities, Manipal), Sarah Amsler (School of Education, Nottingham) and James Burford (Research Education and Development, La Trobe). An online recording of the event is available here (though unfortunately the first few minutes are missing!). Each speaker responded to the book in a different way, and the presentations were highly generative and also generous in sharing in-progress thinking and ideas. There were many question marks hanging in the air by the end of the event – about conferences, about knowledge production and about feminism – and this post goes on to mirror the unfinishedness of the discussion, giving a snapshot of some key points made by each speaker. 

Jenny Parkes and Elaine Unterhalter – Origins of the Book 

Jenny Parkes and Elaine Unterhalter, both experts on gender, education and international development, were Emily’s doctoral supervisors and oversaw the project that ultimately became Gender, Definitional Politics and ‘Live’ Knowledge Production. The original thesis was entitled Eventful gender: an ethnographic exploration of gender knowledge production at international academic conferences (available here) and Elaine noted that the thesis underlies the book as a palimpsest of knowledge production, with the thesis including more theoretical and experimental writing and the book presenting a more powerful message. Jenny reflected on the origins of the book, which emerged from Emily’s participation as a student on, a guest lecturer for and a researcher of the MA course Gender, Education and International Development, with earlier thinking on gender knowledge production developed in the book Gender Pedagogy. Both speakers related the book to new thinking emerging from the pandemic and within academia. Jenny quoted from the book:

‘Conferences are sites where knowledge is produced—sometimes the same old knowledge, sometimes sparkly new knowledge, sometimes both—but this knowledge production cannot be separated from bodies and spaces, which, in all their mucky glory, open ‘live’ knowledge production up to taking unexpected, eventful turns.’ (p. 181)

She asked if virtual conferences can operate in the same way – what about the materiality of the event, the affective dimension, the micropolitics? Are unexpected turns closed down in virtual events? Or is there a way to do things differently? Elaine suggested that the book can help to think about the intersectionality of the pandemic – what are the politics of live knowledge production in relation to COVID-19?

Paul Warmington – Conferences as a site of hate

Paul Warmington, sociologist of race and education, responded to the book with an analysis of conferences as a site of hate. Experiencing recognition through reading the narrated incidents of micropolitics and power play at conferences, Paul noted that the book exposes some of the subterranean and shaded parts of academic mobility. He reflected that many of the important things that happen at conferences are never recorded or written up, and that therefore they cannot be used as evidence – they are tacit, unspoken, denied. He used Critical Race Theory to analyse common conference behaviour, where people continue with behaviour that we know has negative consequences – not because we want to perpetuate injustice, but because the things that would eradicate injustice are not sufficiently important to us or do not seem worth the risk. Paul reflected on conferences he had experienced where the servers were all black and dressed in demeaning uniforms, where the lunchtime keynote was followed by a panel on race where all the organisers left the room, where a symposium on academic freedom had begun with the N word. Paul quoted from the book, taking a passage relating to the possibility of breaking conference rules:

‘rules that informally govern event spaces would have been broken, and this in turn would have impacted on the knowledge production of those spaces in different ways. These rules are difficult to break (though they often are broken, deliberately or inadvertently) because they are spatially enforced through, for example, the pedagogical layout of conference rooms…, which reproduces the power hierarchies of the academy, followed by the equally convention riddled ‘informality’ of social time at events such as lunchtime and drinks receptions.’ (p. 8)

Responding to this passage, Paul discussed that conferences were where he learned about academic structures and relationships and intersectionality, and what counted as valid knowledge, and how seniority operated. Reflecting on the book as brave, invigorating and liberating, he took Gender, Definitional Politics and ‘Live’ Knowledge Production  as a reminder that education research has become too focused on the management of things rather than the governance of people – and that conferences too, as a key part of academic life, need to be conceptualised as relations not things

Ketaki Chowkhani – Conferences, Bodies, Feminisms

Ketaki Chowkhani, scholar of gender and sexuality and pioneer of single studies (and Conference Inference guest author), noted that, through Gender, Definitional Politics and ‘Live’ Knowledge Production, conferences are given due importance as sites of knowledge production. One of the core aims of the book is to move away from analysing concepts as if they are disembodied, established long ago and removed from experience. Ketaki identified the feminist re-centring of the body in relation to knowledge production as a key manoeuvre of the book. She highlighted the section on menstruation during conferences as particularly resonant, holding up the opt-experienced but unspoken relationship between bleeding and embodied knowledge production. Ketaki also highlighted a posthuman sensibility running as thread through the book, where the significance of materiality is analysed in embodied knowledge production.

Ketaki moved on to discuss the concept of intersectionality, which is explored as a conceptual contestation at feminist conferences in the book (particularly in Chapter 4 ‘Citationality, Elsewhereness and the Definitional Politics of Intersectionality’). She picked up on the discussion presented in this chapter on how to discuss gender within intersectionality without the concept of gender becoming simplified or reified – and whether the same requirements of intersectionality are addressed to scholars working with different foundational concepts. Reflecting more widely across feminist events which have particular feminist allegiances, she considered how tried and tested conceptual manoeuvres can alienate people coming to such spaces with other conceptualisations. Are feminist conferences spaces of closed discussions with shared concepts? Is there space for difference? Do ‘we’ want to speak to people who agree or disagree with ‘us’?

Finally, Ketaki raised the question of the conference delegate perspective, and how definitional politics works from the perspective of conference organisers. She suggested that the book can be used as a source of self-reflection for conference organisers to rethink the practices of hosting conferences. 

Sarah Amsler – Colonial Meaning-Making at Conferences, and Making Meaning Otherwise

Sarah Amsler, whose research and academic practice focuses on how learning can help to overcome the limits of modern/colonial ways of knowing, being, imagining and hoping, related to Gender, Definitional Politics and ‘Live’ Knowledge Production through this lens. She reflected on the approach taken in the book where conceptual, embodied and material dimensions are analysed as inseparable. In reading the book, she had enjoyed the attention paid to the analytical process, with a feminist attention to silence and the unspoken, to making the process of working through mess public. Taking the key term elaborated in the book – definitional politics – Sarah read the geopolitics of conceptual knowledge production through a colonial lens, noting that there is a relationship between the (modern) colonial imaginary and a need for the ontological security of fixed and bounded concepts. The ongoing, current need for categorisation for Sarah is linked with the separation of the concept from the process of conceptualisation. She wondered how to imagine meaning making differently even while working within the imposition of colonial epistemology.

Like Paul, Sarah associated conferences with negative affect, stating that conferences are untamed spaces where coloniality pours out unrestrained. Taking conferences in the wider frame of the survival of the world, she wished us to think about how to reframe conferences – and the need for conferences – within the need for humans as a species to relate differently to the world. Conceptual contestation, in these terms, is part of the wider environment.

Finally, Sarah referred to her role in relation to doctoral training, and reflected that Gender, Definitional Politics and ‘Live’ Knowledge Production also has importance for thinking through how to educate emerging scholars into conceptual leaping – how to bring more conceptual courage and dissident political rigour into doctoral training?

James Burford – Conference Rituals and Performances

James Burford, a conferences researcher (among other things!) and co-editor of Conference Inference, began his response to Gender, Definitional Politics and ‘Live’ Knowledge Production with an acknowledgement of country as an expected ritual feature of live Australian knowledge production. He then reflected on this practice as an intertwining of academic knowledge production with protocols that date back thousands of years, and the recognition that reconciliation between settlers and indigenous peoples is an ongoing and incomplete process. This practice has resonance with the approach taken in the book to analyse how concepts, contexts and speaking subjects combine.

James zoomed out from conferences to the ongoing communications that surround conference attendance. He remembered that he had met Emily through a call for abstracts that she had sent out, and that their first emails were interspersed with delays caused by a military coup in Thailand (where James was based at that time) and him then having to make an emergency trip to New Zealand to care for a sick family member. Ongoing processes of accessing conferences occur along parallel lines with care and geopolitical events.

James moved on to respond to the analysis in Chapter 5 of the book of the citational significance of clothing at conferences – particularly in relation to the use of clothing to ‘badge’ different forms of feminism, and how knowledge producers are recognised as more or less authentic based on their style. James discussed that queer studies events also engage in style badging. He recalled that he had brought two changes of clothes and a variety of accessories to the first conference where he met Emily, wearing ‘safe’ clothes to travel to the conference (wary of potential homophobia erupting en route) and then went to the toilets to change in order to fit in with the ‘edgy’ style at the conference.

Finally, James described the key contributions of the book: the book’s contribution to conferences research, analysing dominant discourses of ‘conference fatigue’ and ‘defining moment’ (see also this post); the book’s argument that, if we do not place conferences centre stage sometimes, inequalities are ignored and reproduced; the need to take conferences seriously without taking them too seriously. 

The author of Gender, Definitional Politics and ‘Live’ Knowledge Production would like to thank the guest speakers for their rich and challenging engagement with the book.

Emily F. Henderson (@EmilyFrascatore) is Co-Editor of Conference Inference and Associate Professor of International Education and Development in the Department of Education Studies at the University of Warwick (more about the author here).

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