Last summer I attended the International Sociology Association’s World Congress in Toronto. While I was there, I wondered if I should be getting more out of it. I had travelled a long way to go the conference, and it had been kindly funded by The Sociological Review Foundation.
I had big ambitions. My aim was to go and boldly share my research with academics from around the world. I thought I would do a presentation and begin to think about new dimensions to my research through discussion. As I was just about to hand in my PhD thesis, I also felt it was time to meet new people and start ‘putting myself out there’
I didn’t achieve any of these things. After having worked flat out for three months to finish writing my thesis, I was pretty exhausted by the time I went to the conference. I certainly wasn’t in the most talkative mood of my life. My paper presentation was early in the morning, and not surprisingly not that many people turned up. If I am being totally honest - it didn’t really help me much, nor did it ‘launch’ my research to the field.
Did that mean going to Toronto was a waste of time?
Definitely not. It actually helped me finish my thesis and think about the ways in which my research could add something new - just in ways that I hadn’t anticipated.
The aim of myPhD has been to create a new approach for policy evaluation: to evidence social action in civil society and use this to imagine alternative and more socially just futures. My work doesn’t really sit in a particular stream (and not even in one single discipline - but that’s another matter). I decided to just attend panels that caught my interest. This included sessions on contemporary municipalism, participatory research, and social innovation.
As I was listening to the speakers from these panels, it helped me to think about what was original about my research.
Reflecting on what people were talking about enabled me to think about the ways in which I might be able to add a different perspective. I didn’t ask any questions or raise any points in the sessions, but noted them down.
After looking back through my notebook from the conference, I realised that I had written down the same two questions on nearly every page. These questions were about how my new approach to evaluation could assess how social action has delivered social justice, and the ways in which it is transformative. Thinking about these two questions helped me to crystallise my own thinking. I was able to use these questions as a way to make my whole thesis make sense.
Listening to new ideas from scholars working on a diverse range of fascinating research projects, and then drawing on these to spark new thinking myself was really valuable.
Being part of an academic dialogue (even if this was in my own head in this instance) can help us to see things differently and to achieve clarity on what we are working on ourselves. Next time I will talk beyond my notebook, but I no longer feel bad for not doing so in Toronto.
Dan Silver is a researcher and teacher at the University of Manchester. You can find him on Twitter @DanSilver_07.