14th ESA Conference Reports Manchester 2019

Issue 44: Opening Up Sociology Wed 5 Feb 2020 0

A view from the ESA Office: 3 for 3000!

Dagmar Danko, ESA Director

For many years, the European Sociological Association (ESA) organised its biennial conferences with the help of so-called Professional Conference Organisers (PCO). However, in recent years there has been discussion about the development of the ESA, with a focus on services to members, and in respect of its status as not-for-profit organisation. About four years ago, it was decided that the whole of the conference organisation should be brought ‘in-house’ and that this should be made possible by investing in staff rather than paying a commercial company.

The Athens conference 2017 was a transitional conference, in this regard, and Manchester 2019 was the first conference where the organisation and coordination was fully in the ESA’s own hands. To give a few examples: while in the past, managing the registration platform, that is, all registrations and payments, as well as the conference website were ‘out-sourced’, now registrations and payments as well as the conference website are managed by the Office. The full list of tasks is lengthy and very impressive once you realise that the ESA Office consists of only two permanent staff members plus, for the first time in 2019, a temporary conference assistant for a period of 6 months. The work entails co-negotiating anything that has to do with the overall logistics (venues and rooms, AV, catering, conference material, and so on); financial controlling; coordinating the call and selection of Semi-Plenaries and Research Streams; publishing the Call for Papers; configuring and administering the conference management tool for the abstract submission, reviewing phase and registration period; communicating with thousands of potential conference participants; working closely with the Research Network and Stream coordinators; allocating rooms to 700 sessions together with the Local Organising Committee to whom the ESA Office offers maximum support, next to assisting the ESA Conference Committee responsible for the academic programme.

Call for Papers; dispatching conference flyers; allocating rooms; double-checking; onsite in Manchester

Three ESA Office staff members for 3000 delegates! It could make your head spin if organisational skills, excellent time management and, above all, strong communication skills were lacking. Based on the Athens experience, we now know how many small cogs need to move in order to have a successful conference, and ESA Executive Administrator Andreia Batista Dias and I are aware that miscommunication is the one and only, supreme ‘enemy’. In this regard, I would like to seize the opportunity to thank Andreia and our conference assistant Giovanni Verduci for having dealt with all possible enquiries (ranging from one person wishing to offer his partner the conference attendance as Christmas gift, to another demanding that his professor must have a personal assistant onsite at all times…); and the then ESA President Sue Scott for always being available, notably not just for the good news but also for the inevitable challenges that required tossing ideas around about how to meet them in the best way possible; also Gary Pollock and his LOC, especially for their coordinating and briefing of so many student volunteers; and all the Research Network coordinators with whom, over the year running up to the conference, I probably had the most exchanges – they work hard, respect the deadlines we must give them and yet often take the time for friendly and encouraging words in their many messages.

The end result of this, in Manchester, was such a smooth running conference that time and again, I waited for ‘the other shoe to drop’ and couldn’t believe it wasn’t happening (until at the conference party I finally did). Of course, there was the occasional problem to be solved and unhappy delegate to deal with. Of the many positive examples the following will stick in my mind: the conference participant who just came to the ESA Office desk to say hi and to show us the reusable water bottle from the Athens 2017 conference that she brought with her to Manchester; the vegan RN coordinator eating his lunchbox in pure bliss; the conference participant tweeting pictures of her child playing in the Family Room; the publisher in the exhibition area saying this was, from now on, his favourite conference to attend; Sari Hanafi’s accolade about the conference organisation right before his stirring Plenary speech (let’s not forget he is also the President of the International Sociological Association with conferences that are even bigger than the ESA’s!); and, last but not least, the RN coordinator relating how well attended their sessions were and how he felt like people really engaged in debates triggered by paper presentations that were better than ever. 

Conference material from Manchester 2019 and Athens 2017 - this delegate redefined the true meaning of 'reusable' water bottles.

Quite frankly, there isn’t much that the ESA Office can do about the latter – it’s all about the delegates’ own research projects and their ability to present them to peers. However, we do try our hardest to offer a platform for this kind of sociological gathering, a space where all requirements are met and where people feel comfortable, safe to discuss, eager for some face-to-face interaction and to learn about new Sociology projects and more, and we hope that we play our part well. (Dagmar Danko)

A view from the Local Organising Committee

Gary Pollock, Chair of Manchester LOC for the 14th ESA Conference 2019

Having met regularly throughout 2018 and 2019, the Manchester ESA Local Organising Committee had been preparing for the conference more than a typical academic normally would. The LOC was composed of academics from Manchester Metropolitan, University of Manchester and the University of Salford. Next to the kind of activities one would normally expect to be undertaking, such as devising conference themes, reviewing abstracts and drafting papers – which we did for the LOC Research Stream ‘Urban Futures: Visions for Social Inclusion’ – we had been, under the direction of the ESA office in Paris, busy on less familiar activities. Throughout the preparation period, therefore, some of us became experienced in various aspects of event planning such as: merchandising, branding, timetabling, scheduling, staff management and other logistical requirements. When the conference finally came around, thoughts were not only about how well a paper would be received, we were also concerned with the catering, the registration, the publishers, the rooms, the IT, and so forth.

The day before the Opening: 3000 bags waiting to be filled with each delegate's conference material.

By day one of the conference the ESA Postgraduate Summer School had already taken place, and our student volunteers had been trained on what they would be doing to support the conference. On the morning of Tuesday 20th August the first delegates started to arrive as we set up the registration stands and there was a certain relief that conference day had finally come.

When attending a large conference such as the ESA, I find the registration period to be something that I look forward to and hope it will be fun and positive. It is at registration that you get your name badge (these days a good tweet opportunity), the programme, conference bag and often some other interesting bits and pieces. It is not unusual at this time to bump into friends and colleagues from other parts of the world, an opportunity to catch up, or maybe transact some business. The anticipation of the coming days – the intellectual stimulation, the networking, and the community spirit, all fill me with positive feelings.

Gary Pollock on the first conference day, bumping into friends and colleagues.

Aside from a few notable incidents, for example, the delegate who somehow got trapped in the revolving door at registration, all went smoothly and we hope that the canvas bags with the Manchester bee and the red water bottles see much service in years to come.

I had asserted in a previous TES piece that in coming to Manchester sociology was returning home in the extent to which Engels had written about the effects of mass industrialisation in Manchester during the nineteenth century. Without doubt, Manchester remains a city of interest to sociologists and we know that many conference delegates took the opportunity to explore the city for its historical connections as well as its contemporary supercharged building programme. As well as conference goers experiencing the buzz of the city I also heard stories of people discovering the network of canals as a means of escaping from the street level hubbub. 

As with most large academic conferences, we relied on students to fulfil a range of functions. For most the first point of contact would have been with a student at the registration desk, but I am sure you will all have seen our yellow “Ask me” T-shirted volunteers across the conference campus and maybe they helped you in some way. Without these sociologists of the future things would not have run so smoothly. Throughout the conference they worked proactively and at our request giving orientation, putting up signs, fixing IT issues and so on. They were excited to be seeing so many sociologists who thus far had only been authors on the page. Let’s hope we did not disappoint them.

For me this conference was unlike previous ESAs in that most of the scientific programme passed me by, and this was the same for most of the LOC. Quite rightly, our function was both academic and operational. Nonetheless I was able to attend the opening and closing plenary sessions and hear from some of Europe’s top sociologists. 

Friday morning, the last day of the conference, soon came around and we started to reflect on how things had gone. The reports that I got seemed to suggest that, as with previous conferences, the sessions were as stimulating as ever. This, of course, is largely down to the efforts of the Research Network and Research Stream organisers. In this regard the structure of the ESA is highly functional and creates a strong vested interest in self organisation. There is, however, a reliance on the ESA office and the LOC to deliver the conference infrastructure to facilitate the sessions of each RN/RS. I’d like to think that we succeeded in that.

The conference being held in the UK, the weather had to be an issue of interest, however much I was denying that it should be of any concern despite Manchester having a reputation for being somewhat on the damp side! As it turned out the conference period was warm, often sunny and yet there was an occasional shower of rain. As I noted in the closing ceremony, delegates would have been disappointed not to have seen some rain. Earlier in the conference I had overheard one of the Manchester Metropolitan support staff telling a joke to a group of delegates about the weather which I felt was worth repeating:

Question: How do you know when it is the summer in Manchester?
Answer: The rain gets warmer!

Finally, I would like to reiterate my thanks to the ESA office, the then ESA President Sue Scott, my LOC colleagues and the student volunteers. The success of the conference was entirely down to their collective efforts. (Gary Pollock)

A view from the President

Sue Scott, ESA President 2017-2019

On becoming ESA President you are immediately aware of being responsible for the next conference in two years time. For me that was no particular cause for anxiety initially – Athens had been a success, the decision to have the 2019 conference in Paris was already made and I had a good deal of previous experience of conference organisation – so far so good. However by December 2017 things were looking very different. It had become clear that Paris wasn’t viable and that another venue had to be found. I have written previously in TES about this process, so suffice to say here that I was extremely relieved to discover that Gary Pollock was about to make a bid for Manchester to host the 2021 conference, and that he was willing to bring this commitment forward and to chair the LOC for 2019. Nevertheless there were some concerns about holding the conference in Manchester: how would it look for a UK President to take the conference to her own country?; Manchester was not an obviously attractive destination compared to previous host cities; what would happen with Brexit?; would it be very expensive?; would it rain all the time?…

The city of Manchester with its signature yellow tramway - not always a rainy place.

On the plus side we had an enthusiastic LOC Chair, very proximate, city centre Universities (with potential plenary venues close by). Both Universities have their own Conference Offices and this was important, as 2019 was to be the first ESA conference entirely managed and coordinated by the ESA Office. The experience of events staff at the University of Manchester and MMU proved invaluable to Dagmar [Danko, ESA Director] and to all of us involved. There were some bumps along the road with the plenary venue as we were initially told that The Bridgewater Hall was not available. However, we made the booking in the end and TBH worked extremely well for the plenaries and other events including, perhaps especially, the closing Party. In the end all the Cassandras were silenced: Manchester clearly had a great deal to offer; Brexit hadn’t happened; the pound was weak against the Euro; the sun shone and it hardly rained at all! We had a total of 3149 registrations with 3046 delegates on site, making it the third largest ESA conference ever coming very close to Prague and Athens.

I am probably not the best person to make a judgment about the overall success of the conference as I was so closely involved in the whole process – perhaps more closely than has been usual for a President – in part because of the relocation to Manchester and in part because of all the new aspects of the organisation being undertaken by the ESA Office. However, I will stick my neck out and say that, in my opinion, the 14th ESA conference was a great success! Also, despite the anxieties attendant on feeling responsible, I really enjoyed it!

Sue Scott, speaking at the Opening Ceremony in the Bridgewater Hall

The opening ceremony in the Bridgewater Hall felt really special, the plenary speakers were excellent – sadly Françoise Vergès was unable to attend but Sari Hanafi was more than able to use some of the extra time to engage with questions, sending us away from the final plenary fired-up with enthusiasm for sociology and what it could achieve. Also, and importantly, the end of conference Party was fabulous, with some excellent dancing!

I was not able to attend very many of the Research Network sessions due to ‘presidential commitments’, but feedback about the quality of presentations and the level of intellectual debate has been very good and we certainly had some notable semi plenaries and midday sessions. There was more engagement with external organisations than in the past, with invited speakers from a range of other bodies involved in sessions – for example the joint semi plenary between RN23 (Sexuality) and Manchester Pride, in the run up to the Pride celebrations over the weekend following the conference. We also had some excellent press and social media coverage – a new development for the ESA – thanks to Tony Truman, our media consultant.

My overall impression was one of calm – there didn’t seem to be grumpy queues or too many lost or harassed delegates – and overall a very pleasant, friendly atmosphere. I’m sure that there was some dissatisfaction – you can’t please all of the people etc. – but the office staff, the interns and the student volunteers managed everything very smoothly.

I think the conference theme worked well – not too constraining, but appropriate to the key issues for both Europe and Sociology, and the conference atmosphere and the engagement of speakers and audiences engendered a sense of ‘belonging’ to a community of sociologists across Europe and beyond.

Paper presenters talk about their research with a 'community of sociologists across Europe and beyond'.

Aside from worries about how many people will register, whether the plenary speakers will turn up, and about the contents of the lunch boxes, a significant Presidential concern is the General Assembly. Nevertheless it was an honour to engage with the membership in the General Assembly as my last act as President.

The GA is a very important aspect of the ESA’s governance. It is however, also difficult to find the best space and enough time for it in, what is, a very busy programme. We decided to move it to the Bridgewater Hall, as the designated room was just not big enough. This was risky as it meant that it was more of a challenge for people to get there in time, but in the event we had a good turn out. The GA can be unpredictable with, on occasions, something that the Executive puts forward being unexpectedly challenged from the floor. Of course this is part of the democratic process and should continue but, in my view, the ESA needs to also have more inclusive and frequent ways of engaging with the membership, in addition to the GA. This being said the meeting went very well and finally the ESA has By Laws (hurrah! and many thanks to Laura Horn for all her hard work), and also an addition to its Statutes to better deal with gender balance in elections. Another positive aspect of the GA was being able to announce that Bristol University Press had won the competitive tender to be the ESA’s Journal Publisher. This new partnership with a ‘not for profit’ University Press, specialising in the social sciences, is very timely in the post PlanS publishing world.

My overwhelming feeling at the end of the conference was relief that nothing major had gone wrong, but also pleasure at being part of a European-wide academic association representing a vibrant critical discipline, which has a more important role than ever in the current social, political and environmental climate. Sociology continues to face challenges precisely because it is ‘critical’, but it is crucial that we maintain this position, and coming together at conferences is one important way to refresh our determination to continue to undertake important research and to be heard. There is much discussion about the need to cut down on academic travel, which I strongly support and I would urge the ESA to use more web-based methods creatively. However, as sociologists we must not lose sight of the importance of face-to-face interaction, for our relationships, and for the development of our discipline, for which we need the conference.

An important moment in face-to-face interaction at ESA conferences: How do you spell your name? Or: Checking out name badges.

In conclusion I would say that Manchester was a very successful and well-organised conference, which entirely supported the decision to move away from employing a Professional Conference Organisation in favour of the ESA Office organising the Conference, with support from the Local Organising Committee. The attendance at the conference and its smooth running bear this out, as will the conference budget when it is finalised. Many thanks are due to the staff and assistants in the ESA office – most especially our Director Dr. Dagmar Danko; to the members of the Local Organising Committee – especially its Chair Professor Gary Pollock; to the Research Network Coordinators and Boards; to the Student Volunteers and to the ESA Executive Committee and last but by no means least thanks are due to all the delegates for being at the heart of the conference and the ESA.

Manchester was a learning process, learning which can now be put to very good use in the service of the 15th ESA Conference in Barcelona in 2021, where I look forward to having no responsibilities! (Sue Scott)

All pictures (c) ESA / Krystan-Grace Sharpe-Young

Comment on this article log in with your ESA username and password: a comment field will appear.