From ESA – Strategies & Activities
Sue Scott, ESA President 2017-2019
I am delighted to be writing this report for the first issue of the new look European Sociologist, under the editorship of Dr. Dagmar Danko, and I do hope that you all agree that it looks good and will be an excellent focus for information, communication and debate. It is now just over six months since I was elected as President of the ESA and a very busy been six months it has been!
First there were many aspects of the Association that I needed to understand better, and also some engagement with French bureaucracy in order to become an official person in France so that I might deal with legal and financial matters. I made my first visit to the new ESA office at the end of September and, as well as spending time with Dagmar and Andreia, I met the ESA Book-Keeper, the delightful and helpful M. Ballester who then very sadly died in November. His advice and support is very much missed and it has been difficult to find a long-term replacement, but we think that we have a solution now.
The new Executive Committee met in October and spent a very positive two days together. We allocated roles and responsibilities and future work tasks, as well as beginning to plan the 2019 conference – on the assumption that it would be in Paris. However, as I explained in my recent email to all ESA members, over the following weeks problems arose in relation to holding the conference in Paris. By mid December it became clear that this would not be possible and that we would need to find an alternative venue. This task took up much of my and Dagmar’s time in the run-up to the winter holiday and again in January but, as you now know, we have an exciting alternative venue in Manchester and, as I always have a desire to make an opportunity out of a crisis, I am sure that it will be an extremely successful conference. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Professor Gary Pollock for his willingness to bring forward the Manchester bid from 2021 to 2019, thus ensuring that we had a fairly timely resolution to the problem.
As most of you will also know the ESA's long-term administrator, Gisèle Tchinda-Falcucci, formally left the organisation in November (see the piece by Ricca Edmondson in this issue), although, as she was on maternity leave, my presidency had begun without her knowledgeable presence. Of course we then had Dagmar Danko in a full-time role as Executive Coordinator with responsibility for Conferences and Publications and Andreia Batista Dias in a part-time administrative position to cover Gisèle’s absence. The new Executive agreed that we needed to replace Gisèle with another full-time administrator in order to offer the best possible service to our growing membership. We advertised the post of Executive Administrator towards the end of 2017 and interviewed four well-qualified candidates at the end of January. The interview panel was unanimous in agreeing that Andreia was the most suitable candidate. So we have a very talented and efficient team of two in the ESA office. Dagmar Danko is very busy as Editor of the European Sociologist, ensuring that our new website continues to develop and beginning to work towards the 2019 conference. Andreia, as well as dealing with all of the routine work of the office and with membership and members enquiries, is making an excellent job of the budgets for the ESA and the Research Networks and will work closely with our new Treasurer Laura Horn.
I have had two meetings with Michel Wieviorka, the Director of FMSH, where the ESA office is based and have been delighted by the strength of his support for our organisation. I am also pleased to report that we are about to sign a new contract for our accommodation and are able to draw on a range of expertise within FMSH as well as having access to meeting rooms. This has meant that it was possible to move quickly on our decision to re locate the PhD Summer School to Paris when it became clear that it was not feasible to hold it in Ankara.
It may sound as if I have only been involved in ESA ‘domestic’ matters, but this is not so, I am also developing a better understanding of the European Research agenda via my membership of the Board of The European Association for the Humanities and Social Sciences (EASSH). EASSH is working hard in relation to policy development and lobbying, not least in attempts to ensure that there is greater scope for and representation of disciplines across the Humanities and Social Sciences within the post Horizon 2020 Framework Programme and beyond. I look forward to my continuing involvement and to updating you on relevant developments.
Adequate funding for sociological research is, of course, crucial if the discipline is to thrive, but it is also crucial that sociologists are not disadvantaged by inappropriate research assessment methodologies. I share many of the concerns aired by John Holmwood in his piece in this issue of the ES, and especially with regard to the effect on our career young members of the pressure to publish in high impact factor journals, which are increasingly solidified into a tightly specified list by University managers. It is of course important that we publish internationally in order to communicate as widely as possible – although locally focused publications are sometimes very important – but proscribing a shortlist of ‘acceptable’ journals when it comes to evaluating the quality of publications, and using this as key criteria for appointments and promotion, is highly problematic for sociology and sociologists. Our discipline is very diverse and, as illustrated by the range of ESA RNs, made up of many sub areas, some of them under development. This means that we need a wide range of journals to cover the field and some of these will serve communities of scholars too small for their impact to ever be high. However these more focused journals may have very stringent peer review and publish work of equal, and sometimes higher quality, to that found in the higher impact general sociology journals. It is also impossible for all of us to publish in the ‘big’ general journals and especially difficult for Europeans to break into ‘top’ US journals. To base assessments on the location of a publication, rather than a judgment of its quality, is to risk discriminating against new and emerging fields, and potentially also against career young academics, and those who find it difficult to publish in English. To rely overly on citations is certainly to discriminate against more recent publications and against academics who only have very recent publications – citations take time to build. Citations are also probably a better indication of whose work we already know than of the quality of the work per se!
In the UK we have now had long experience of research assessment – going back as far as 1986 – and, while there is still room for criticism, the fact that the Humanities and Social Sciences (with the notable exception of Economics) have resisted attempts to move to a metrics driven approach is a very positive aspect of the UK Research Excellence Framework. We have argued successfully that metrics don’t work for us and for the need to be able to maintain high quality but, relatively, small circulation journals in order to refresh the breadth of our disciplines, and to allow for new developments. All of the publications submitted to the REF are read by assessment panel members and allocated a grade based on judgement about quality, without regard for the journal, publisher or status of the author.
The other major aspect of assessment, which is sweeping across Europe, is of course ‘impact’ (see the article by Marta Soler in this issue), and here it is crucial that we continue to make a strong case for the centrality of social and academic impact rather than a narrowly focused, short-term, economic definition. When ‘Impact’ was introduced, as a key part of REF2014, in the UK there was a great deal of anxiety, in the SSH disciplines, that we would not be able to compete with STEM (science, technology, engineering and medicine), or with applied fields. However, this was not the outcome, indeed the opposite has been shown to be the case with 84% of all the Impact Case Studies submitted to REF2014 across all disciplinary areas having a social science component
Of course such success does not render the requirements unproblematic, of course we want to make a difference, but not to have this assessed on inappropriate terms. I would like to see more discussion across the ESA about metrics, research evaluation and impact assessment in general, so we can learn from each other and try to ensure that sociology and sociologists are treated appropriately. I look forward to some of this discussion in future issues of the ES.
Meanwhile preparation for the conference is picking up pace and I hope that we will be able to announce the plenary speakers very soon. The Executive will hold its next meeting in Manchester in May, when we will be able to meet with the local organising committee, visit the venues which will host the conference, and get a sense of what, I can assure those of you who don’t know it, is a very vibrant and sociologically interesting city. In fact our conference coincides with the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre and the LOC has already established links with the management committee for the commemoration. Two hundred years on and, as sociologists, we are engaged in documenting contemporary struggles for democracy and against poverty – plus ça change!