The first question we must ask ourselves when discussing whether or not we should go back to face-to-face conferences is: why do we hold conferences in the first place?
The obvious answer is that we hold them because we want to exchange knowledge, network and socialise with our peers. But if we want a more nuanced and considered answer we would have to delve into what those three elements, knowledge exchange, networking and socialising, mean for different people.
During conferences, we exchange knowledge with those who have something to offer in return, whether this be knowledge, valuable connections, or constructive critique. The simple way of proving that you are worthy of being party to such an exchange is by submitting a successful abstract or proposal. The idea is that if you have something valuable to add to the conversation, you hold the right to be part of it as well. But just because you have the right to be part of it, does not automatically mean that you can. For me, an acceptance to a conference is just the beginning of an arduous journey towards the possibility of attendance.
We usually hold conferences and perform these exchanges of knowledge within the confines of academic institutions in specific countries, in auditoriums, classrooms, concert halls, in places named after important people with important jobs. But the architecture and history of these places are often times connected to ideals of distinction, exclusivity, inaccessibility and social segregation, which we sometimes reinstate and maintain through our aversion to change. In order access the knowledge that is housed in such places, even after being theoretically “let in” by an acceptance e-mail, we need a combination of freedoms. The freedom to travel is, in most cases, the most crucial of them all. This freedom is of course related to things like one’s class, nationality, race, ethnicity, family responsibilities, accommodation status, and physical ability.
The most prestigious conferences in my field are held in North America, Australia, the UK and high income countries in the European Union. As I have what is considered to be a “bad” passport, if I wanted to attend one of these conferences, I would need to pay to apply for a visa three months before my date of travel. I would need to prove my income, my student status, that I have bought my plane tickets, that I have booked a hotel, and guarantee that I would not overstay my welcome in these countries. I would need to get an appointment at either the consulate, or more commonly, the visa centre to which countries outsource these services, go through an interview process and relinquish my passport for several weeks so that I can be given a visa stamp. This is what happens if everything goes according to plan.
Furthermore, in order to fulfil these requirements, I need to have both free time, and money in my bank account. I have applied for many visas in my 27 years, so I know that I need to put in a substantial amount of work printing and filling out forms, buying envelopes and stamps so I can send documents, or taking the bus to the visa centre to wait in a queue for an undisclosed amount of time to hand them in, in person. To book a visa interview, a flight, and a hotel, I need money. As I am a part-time worker and a PhD student, I don’t have much of it. My university provides reimbursements, £300 for local and £500 for international research events, but that assumes that you have resources to spare in the first place. If I want to travel to the US or Australia to attend a conference, £500 does not even come close to covering basic travel expenses, let alone visas, accommodation, and food. This is all so I can attend a conference, present for twenty minutes, eat finger-foods, be given a branded lanyard, do a pub crawl and go back home poorer than I was before.
You might ask why I still try to attend these conferences. It’s because no one in my family has a PhD, I’m a foreigner where I study and I need to build social networks and cultural capital by myself to secure a future in research. Research shows that networks play an incredibly important role in academic hiring processes, sometimes even overriding merit and skill. Beyond having a direct effect on your career, networks can often provide publication opportunities, which help researchers build credibility in their field, as well as further professional relationships. This sort of social capital is best established in environments where specialised knowledge is exchanged, such as conferences. Of course, to connect with other researchers in conferences you also need a degree of cultural capital and some mastery over conference etiquette. These two forms of capital are mostly developed and fostered by attending conferences and the social events that follow them. However, the people who have to build networks and capital from scratch are usually those who are most in need of them. Therefore, the material requirements of physically attending a conference can often time take opportunities away from of the same people. Conferences held in locations which are difficult to access for the most precarious and marginalised people in academia, perpetuate a system where only the richest and most privileged survive. It breeds a system which is impossible to keep up with and where the most cutting-edge research is coveted by those who do not have to worry about material constraints. My question is, does academia have a problem with this or are finger-foods more important than access? More and more critical research is now being conducted by academics about inequalities. If we are serious about these issues, then we need to make sure that we approach our own behaviour with the same critical lens. If we want to be make academia more equal, then we need to make sure that we do not go back to face-to-face conferences.
2020 was a difficult year for many, including me. However, one good thing that came out it for me was online conferences. The fact that all events had to be moved online meant that I could attend more conferences than I normally would have been able to. This move made them more accessible, not only for me, but many other people who have to tackle different barriers to attend them in the first place. This way, I had more time to focus on my presentations and my research, and be more present for others’ talks as well. I really enjoyed my time presenting at and attending online conferences, talks and research events because I did not have to worry about my visa applications and tight budget. COVID-19 forced conferences to be finally accessible, and it is shame that this happened not because of a deliberate push from within academia but because of a pandemic.
Still, the problem is that online conferences can be difficult to follow and engage with, and they can be draining and frustrating. The solution is not to banish them into obscurity because we are fed up with the technical difficulties, and with the fact that digital platforms cannot emulate genuine human contact and exchange. The solution lies in the construction of a more empathetic and equal system for academic knowledge exchange, networking and socialising. We must take this as a lesson and apply it to organise events that are truly accessible. This might mean a transition towards a hybrid system, and holding events in “peripheral” locations. These are all viable options, and can be done with success if organisers commit to accessibility. One thing that we should do however, is to reject a complete return to face-to-face conferences. Preserving face-to-face conferences would only highlight that academia is stubbornly dedicated to maintaining a visibly and explicitly unfair status-quo.
Idil Galip is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Edinburgh. She studies digital culture, online humour and labour. She also runs the Meme Studies Research Network.